5 Things You Should Know About Shingles

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If you've ever had chickenpox as a child, you're at risk for shingles as an adult.

Shingles is a disease that causes pain and itching on the skin as well as a rash that usually develops on one side of the body, according to the National Institute of Aging. It's caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV)— the same one that was responsible for that bout of chickenpox you had when you were a child. But our bodies never get rid of VZV. Instead, the virus lies inactive in the body's nerve cells until it can flare up again and causes shingles.

For most people, VZV will remain inactive. But as we age, our immune system—which has kept the virus in check all these years—starts to weaken. "That, along with stress and other illnesses, allows the virus to 'escape,'" says Priya Sampathkumar, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic.

Still, despite the seriousness of the disease—and the availability of a vaccine—many people don't know much about it. "[Shingles] is a fairly common problem," says Sampathkumar, "but the awareness isn't as high."

Read on for five things everyone over 65 should know about shingles.

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1. Shingles is more common than you might think.

Nearly 1 in 3 people in the United States will one day develop shingles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and up to 4 percent of people who get it will be hospitalized for complications.

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2. You might not recognize the symptoms at first.

Doctors can treat shingles with antivirals, but the medications work best if you start taking them as soon as the possible. Problem is, the symptoms of shingles—including the itching and the red rash itself—can be very mild in the early stages, causing some people to ignore them.

For example, a few days before the tell-tale rash appears on your skin, you might feel pain or itching in that area, but not know what's causing it. "You don't quite realize what it is, so you don't even go to the doctor," says Sampathkumar.

Other symptoms, according to the CDC, include a fever, headache, chills, and an upset stomach.

3. For some people, the pain can linger for months or even years.

"Most people think shingles is just a rash that gets better," says Sampathkumar. "And that's true for most people, but [not all]." Specifically, up to 18 percent of people who develop shingles will also develop a type of long-term nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), according to the CDC. PHN—which is more common in older adults than younger ones—can last for months or years, and can be so severe that it can cause depression, anxiety, and more, says the National Institute of Aging.

Shingles that appear on the face can also cause long-term problems. If blisters form near (or in) the eye, a person can experience eye damage or blindness; it's also possible to develop hearing loss, according to the National Institute of Aging.

4. There's a vaccine available, but it's in short supply.

The CDC says that healthy adults over the age of 50 should receive two doses of Shingrix, a shingles vaccine that's more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles and PHN.

Unfortunately, says Sampathkumar, there's a shortage of Shingrix vaccines in the United States. "There are many parts of the country where we don't have the vaccine at all, or only a limited supply of it," she says.

Another possible downside: The vaccine can also cause some temporary side effects that can last for a few days, including mild-to-moderate pain, muscle aches, a headache, and fever, according to the CDC.

5. You can get shingles again.

Most people will only develop shingles once in their lifetime, but sometimes, the rash can reappear. "There's no [limit] on how many times you can get shingles," says Sampathkumar. "As you get older, your immune system takes more and more hits…and then you're set up for getting shingles again."

The good news is that a shingles reappearance usually doesn't happen right away; for example, a second or third flare-ups is more likely to occur years (not months) after your first one, she says. But she also cautions that if your immune system is very weak, you can develop shingles more frequently.

If you believe that you might have shingles, call your doctor right away.

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