Shingles (Herpes Zoster)
Rash and blisters from shingles (herpes zoster) on face
The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Cause and Symptoms
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is caused by the Varicella zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles can develop only after initial infection with chickenpox, or, more uncommonly, after vaccination for chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox (or after vaccination), the virus remains in the body, located around nerve cell clusters in the head and along the spine. Many years after the initial infection (or vaccination), the virus can be reactivated and cause symptoms.
The first symptoms of shingles are often pain, burning, or itching along a band of skin on a single side of the body, usually on the head, neck, or trunk. These bands of skin correspond to nerve cells where the virus has been activated. In a few days, a rash and blisters erupt on the skin in a band that follows the nerve’s path. Fever, headache, and achiness may also occur. Typically, blisters crust over and scab within 2-3 weeks.
Facts about Shingles
- Shingles can occur at any age, but it is most common in people over age 60 and in people with weakened immune systems.
- Shingles can recur, although most people who experience shingles have it just once in their lifetime.
- About 1 million cases of shingles occur in the United States each year.
A person with shingles cannot give shingles to someone else. However, a person with shingles can transmit Varicella zoster to a person who is not immune to the virus. In that case, the person would develop chickenpox, not shingles.
Transmission occurs via the fluid from the shingles blisters. A person is infectious from the time the blisters appear to the time the blisters crust over and no longer contain fluid. Accordingly, people with shingles blisters are advised to avoid bringing blistered areas in contact with others.
Treatment and Care
There is no cure for shingles. Certain antiviral medications can reduce the severity and duration of shingles when they are taken soon after symptom onset.
Care for shingles usually includes use of pain medications and topical treatments for blistered areas.
The most common complication from shingles is a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia. This occurs when the infected nerve is damaged and causes pain even after the shingles blisters disappear. Pain may be mild or severe, and it may last months or even years.
Other complications that may result from shingles are skin infections, eye infections, and neurological complications.
Available Vaccines and Vaccination Campaigns
Since 2008, the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that most Americans age 60 and older get the shingles vaccine. Adults 50-59 may also get the vaccine.
The vaccine reduces risk of shingles about 50%, and it reduces the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia by nearly 70%.
The shingles vaccine is a live, attenuated vaccine and is not recommended for people with weakened immune systems. It was licensed in 2006. The generic name of the vaccine is Zoster Vaccine, Live (tradename Zostavax).
Most Medicare drug plans (Part D) cover the cost of the vaccine and its administration, minus any copayments. Most private insurance plans provide coverage for the vaccination for people 60 and older. However, because the vaccination is not on the recommended adult immunization schedule for adults age 50-59, most insurance plans do not provide a benefit for shingles vaccination for this group of people.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevention of herpes zoster. Recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR. 2008. 57(05);1-30. Accessed 04/12/2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster) clinical overview. Accessed 04/12/2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Varicella. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, 13thed. 2015. Accessed 04/12/2017.
Merck. Zostavax package insert. (159 KB). Accessed 04/12/2017.
Last update 12 April 2017