Facts about Shingles for Adults

What is shingles?
Shingles (also called herpes zoster) occurs when the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox, reawakens in the body. Shingles strikes about one million Americans each year, and about half of them are age 60 years and older. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of shingles. Shingles is associated with normal aging and anything that weakens the immune system such as certain medications, cancers, or infections, but it can also occur in healthy children and younger persons. Shingles is not passed from person to person.

Symptoms of shingles
People with shingles usually have a painful, blistering rash on one side of the body, usually on the torso or face. There may be pain, numbness, or tingling in the area two to four days before the rash appears. Pain or numbness usually resolves within weeks, but it can sometimes last for much longer. Damage can occur to the eyes or other organs if they are involved. One of the most serious long-term consequences of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a condition where pain goes on long after the rash has resolved. PHN pain can be very difficult to treat and it can lower quality of life and functioning as much as congestive heart failure, a heart attack, type II diabetes, and major depression.

Prevention of shingles
There is a vaccine against shingles. The shingles vaccine prevents the disease in about half of those vaccinated, but more importantly it reduces the frequency of the long-lasting PHN pain by about two-thirds. Although people who are vaccinated may still get shingles, they are likely to experience a milder case than un-vaccinated persons. Almost all Americans age 40 years and older had chickenpox in the past, though often they may not recall or even realize it if they had a mild case.

Who should get shingles vaccine?
The shingles vaccine is recommended for everyone age 60 years and older to keep the varicella-zoster virus from re-activating and causing shingles

Vaccine safety
No specific safety concerns arose during the shingles vaccine trial. The most common side-effects following shingles vaccination are redness, pain, tenderness, and swelling at the injection site; and headache. As with any medicine, there are very small risks that serious problems could occur after getting the vaccine. However, the potential risks associated with shingles are much greater than the potential risks associated with the vaccine. 

Disease and vaccine facts

  • FACT:  There are about one million cases of shingles diagnosed in the US every year; about half are in people age 60 years and older. 
  • FACT: Shingles typically affects older people and those whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV infection, cancers, or treatment with immunosuppressive drugs. 
  • FACT: There is a safe, effective vaccine to prevent shingles; it is recommended for everyone age 60 years and older. 
  • FACT: Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. 
  • FACT:  The first time someone is infected with varicella zoster virus they can get chickenpox. The virus can then remain silent in the body for decades and cause shingles later. 
  • FACT: Shingles causes a painful, blistering rash that usually appears on just one side of the body, most often on the torso or face. 
  • FACT: Pain and numbness may occur in the location of the rash two to four days before the rash appears. 
  • FACT: The most common complication of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a long-lasting, hard to treat pain.
  • FACT:  PHN lowers quality of life about as much as congestive heart failure, a heart attack, type II diabetes, and major depression.
  • FACT: Medications used to treat PHN pain are only modestly effective.
  • FACT: There is a vaccine available that reduces the risk of shingles by 50 percent and the risk of PHN by 66 percent.
  • FACT:  Shingles vaccine is recommended for people even if they’ve had shingles before because they can get it again. 
  • FACT: The shingles vaccine should be given to people in the recommended age group even if they cannot remember if they ever had chickenpox.

January 2012

For more information, speak with your healthcare professional or visit www.Adultvaccination.org.