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Shingles (Herpes Zoster) FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

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Q:Is shingles contagious?

A:Yes. Shingles is indeed contagious. Shingles is contagious and can be spread from an affected person to babies, children, or adults who have not had chickenpox. But instead of developing shingles, these people develop chickenpox.

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Q:Shingles is related to chickenpox. True or False?

A:True. Shingles is a skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. This virus is called the varicella zoster virus (VZV) and belongs to the herpes family of viruses.

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Q:Shingles is caused by the same herpes virus responsible for genital herpes. True or False?

A:False. The herpes virus that causes shingles and chickenpox is not the same as the herpes simplex viruses that cause genital herpes (which can be sexually transmitted) or herpes mouth sores. Also, shingles is medically termed herpes zoster.

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Q:What are the signs and symptoms of shingles?

A:Signs and symptoms of shingles can include up to a week of burning pain and sensitive skin, blisters that ooze then crust over, and pain without blisters. Shingles rash starts as small blisters on a red base, with new blisters continuing to form for 3 to 5 days. Eventually, the blisters pop, and the area starts to ooze. The affected areas will then crust over and heal. On occasion, burning pain will be present, but blisters may never appear.

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Q:What is the most common complication of shingles?

A:Nerve pain is the most common complication of shingles. The medical term for this pain is postherpetic neuralgia.

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Q:Medical prescription treatments that combat shingles are called what?

A:Medical prescription treatments that combat shingles are called antiviral medications or antivirals for short. Drugs that fight viruses are called antiviral medications. Some of the available antivirals on the market, including acyclovir (Zovirax®), valacyclovir (Valtrex®), and famciclovir (Famvir®), can reduce the severity and duration of the rash if started early (within 72 hours of the appearance of the rash). In addition to antiviral medications, pain medications may be needed for symptom control. Both nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and narcotic pain-control medications may be used for pain management in shingles.

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Q:What is the medical definition of shingles?

A:Shingles (herpes zoster virus) is an extremely painful viral infection of the nerve roots resulting in a skin rash caused by the same virus that causes the childhood illness chickenpox. The reactivated virus responsible for these conditions is called the varicella zoster virus (VZV).

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Q:Who can get the shingles vaccine?

A:The shingles vaccine is available for people over the age of 60. In May 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine for adult shingles. The vaccine, known as Zostavax®, is approved for use in adults ages 60 and over who have had chickenpox. The shingles vaccine contains a booster dose of the chickenpox vaccine usually given to children. Tests over an initial four-year period showed that the vaccine significantly reduced the incidence of shingles in these older adults. Studies are ongoing to evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccine over a longer term.

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Q:How long does a shingles outbreak typically last?

A:A shingles outbreak typically lasts for 3 to 4 weeks. The duration of the outbreak may take 3 to 4 weeks from start to finish.

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Q:Once you have had chickenpox, you cannot catch shingles from someone else. True or False?

A:True. Once a person has had chickenpox, people cannot catch shingles (or contract the virus) from someone else. If you have had chickenpox, you have had the virus infection that can reactivate at a later date to produce shingles, so you can still "get" or develop shingles.

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Q:In what part of the body does the varicella zoster virus (VZV) settle?

A:The varicella zoster virus (VZV) settles in nerve roots and ganglia. The shingles virus resides in regional nerve roots and ganglia (collections of nerve cells, or neurons). When the virus is reactivated, it follows the path of individual nerves.

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Q:What can happen in the body to cause or reactivate shingles?

A:Emotional stress, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), cancer and chemotherapy can reactivate shingles. After an individual has chickenpox, this virus lives dormant in the nervous system and is never fully cleared from the body. Under certain circumstances the virus reactivates and causes shingles. In most cases of shingles, however, a cause for the reactivation of the virus is never found.

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Q:How is shingles diagnosed?

A:Doctors reach a diagnosis of shingles by visual diagnosis and laboratory analysis of blister fluid. Doctors diagnose shingles based on the way the rash looks. Shingles also may be diagnosed with a scraping or swab of the fluid from the blisters that can be analyzed in a lab.

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Q:What is the cure for shingles?

A:There is no cure for shingles. There is no cure for shingles, but treatment may shorten the length of illness and prevent complications. Treatment options include antiviral medicines such as acyclovir (Zovirax®), valacyclovir (Valtrex®), or famciclovir (Famvir®) to reduce the pain and the duration of shingles; over-the-counter pain medicines, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen, to help reduce pain during an attack of shingles; and topical antibiotics, applied directly to the skin, to stop infection of the blisters. Corticosteroids also may be used to reduce pain in people younger than 50 who have had a recent outbreak of shingles.

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