Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays inactive in the body. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later and cause shingles.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, causes a painful skin rash. It develops on one side of the face or body and forms blisters that typically scab over in seven to ten days and clears up within two to four weeks. Before the rash develops, people often have pain, itching, or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. This may happen anywhere from one to five days before the rash appears. Most commonly, the rash occurs in a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face; and in rare cases, the rash may be more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach and in some cases shingles can affect the eye and cause loss of vision.
People have described pain from shingles as excruciating, aching, burning, stabbing, and shock-like. For some people, the pain can last for months or even years after the rash goes away. This pain is called postherpetic neuralgia. It is the most common complication of shingles. This pain may also lead to depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Shingles can interfere with activities of daily living like dressing, bathing, eating, cooking, shopping, and travel.
Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles can be spread from a person with active shingles to another person who has never had chickenpox nor ever been vaccinated against chickenpox. In such cases, the person exposed to the virus might develop chickenpox, but they would not develop shingles. The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters caused by shingles. A person is not infectious before the blisters appear or once the rash has developed crusts. Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox and the risk of a person with shingles spreading the virus is minimal if the rash is covered.
Vaccination is the only way to reduce your risk of shingles and postherpetic neuralgia. The CDC recommends adults age 60 years or older receive a single dose of shingles vaccine. They should get the vaccine whether or not they recall having had chickenpox. There is no maximum age for getting shingles vaccine.
Even if you have had shingles, you can still receive shingles vaccine to help prevent future occurrences of the disease. There is no specific length of time you must wait after having shingles before receiving shingles vaccine, but generally you should make sure the shingles rash has disappeared before getting vaccinated.
Talk with your healthcare provider if you have questions about the shingles vaccine.