According to statistics reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost one in three Americans will develop shingles (herpes zoster) during their lifetime. The disease is particularly dangerous to people over age 60 and those who are immunocompromised. Fortunately, there is a way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that often follows an outbreak of the disease.
Shingles is a disease that causes a painful skin rash. In addition, shingles can lead to severe pain lasting for months or even years — a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia. Shingles can lead to other serious complications as well: eye problems (when shingles affects the eye), pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness and brain inflammation (encephalitis) are some of those complications. In rare cases, shingles can lead to death.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV) — the virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from the symptoms of chickenpox, the herpes zoster virus continues to stay in the body in a dormant state. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later, giving rise to shingles.
While shingles can’t be passed from one person to another, a person with active shingles can transmit the virus that causes shingles, VZV, to a person who has never had chickenpox — but only through direct contact with the shingles rash. If a person who has never had chickenpox is infected with VZV, he or she will first develop chickenpox, not shingles.
Scientists advise that the only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that can follow is to get vaccinated. Adults 60 years old or older can receive a single dose of the shingles vaccine, called Zostavax®.
Some people in this age group should wait to get vaccinated — and perhaps should forego being vaccinated at all — if they have certain medical conditions, particularly if they have a weakened immune system. For a list of these conditions, see Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Vaccine.
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