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Shingles: What you Need to Know


In the United States, about 1 in 3 people will develop a painful itchy rash called shingles at some point in their life.

What are shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, are caused by reactivation of a virus called the varicella-zoster virus that is more commonly known for causing the childhood infection known as chickenpox. Getting chickenpox used to be extremely common through the early 1990s. In 1995, a vaccine for chickenpox was developed and this has drastically reduced the cases of chickenpox in the United States.

For those of us older folks who did not receive the chickenpox vaccine and were unfortunate enough to develop the chickenpox rash, we are at risk of developing shingles at some point during our lifetime, because the virus stays in the body long after the chickenpox rash has resolved. As we age, our immune system weakens and may become too weak to keep the virus in check. If the virus reactivates, you can get a painful, blistering rash (known as shingles) that usually only affects a small area of skin (usually the chest or back) on one side of the body. The shingles rash typically only lasts for about 7-14 days, but in a small percentage of people, it can lead to long-term pain in the area of the skin where the shingles rash occurred. This is known as postherpetic neuralgia. Postherpetic neuralgia pain can be lifelong and is often very difficult to treat.


Great news… there’s a vaccine for shingles too! It is strongly recommended that you get the shingles vaccine when you turn 50 years of age. Talk to your primary care physician right away if you are over age 50. You should get the Shingles vaccine even if you have had shingles before as there is up to a 5% chance that you can develop shingles a second time.

Of note, the shingles vaccine is not 100% effective at preventing shingles. If you have had chickenpox, and you get the shingles vaccine, you can still develop shingles. However, the vaccine will still greatly decrease your risk for developing serious complications from the shingles virus, such a postherpetic neuralgia, eye disease, and bacterial infections.

Getting the chickenpox vaccine during childhood will also minimize the risk of developing shingles later in life, but it does not eliminate the risk of developing shingles completely. People that were lucky enough to get the chickenpox vaccine as a child will have a much lower chance of developing shingles later in life, but the risk is not zero.

How a dermatologist can help with shingles

The providers at Feinstein Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery are trained at providing the most up-to-date treatment options for people affected by shingles. Common treatments include:

  • Antiviral medications: Medications such as valacyclovir, acyclovir and famciclovir can be helpful but are most effective when they are started early during the first signs of shingles. Typically the goal of these medications is to shorten the duration and severity of shingles, and minimize the chances of developing the long-term pain syndrome known and postherpetic neuralgia.
  • Pain medication: Shingles is frequently painful. Over-the-counter and less commonly prescription pain medicine may be useful and helping with the discomfort and pain caused by the virus. Other medications that can help with pain include anti-depressants, anesthetic creams and patches, or anti-seizure medicines like gabapentin.

If you suspect you may have shingles, or you have any other concerns regarding your skin, we are here to help. You can schedule a consultation with one of our providers at Feinstein Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery by calling (561) 498-4407.

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