Dear Doctor

Dear Doctor

My friend recently had shingles. Is it contagious? Can I "catch" it?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a painful, blistering skin rash due to the varicella-zoster virus, the virus that causes chickenpox. After you get chickenpox, the virus remains inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Shingles occurs after the virus becomes active again in these nerves years later.

The rash usually starts on one side of the body or may appear as a stripe. Before the rash appears, the area may tingle, itch or be painful. Shingles may cause abdominal pain, chills, drooping eyelids or weakness in your face muscles, fever, headache, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and taste and vision problems.

Shingles itself is not contagious, but if you come into contact with someone who has it and you have never had chickenpox, you may contract the varicella-zoster virus, which will appear as chickenpox.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles. Typically, these people will only experience one episode of shingles in their lifetime.

Shingles can occur at any age, your risk is greater if you are over 60 years old, had chickenpox before you were 1 year old, or you have a compromised immune system.

It is important to go to the doctor within 3 days after the rash appears. If you are diagnosed with shingles you may be prescribed an antiviral medication, corticosteroids, antihistamines, pain medications or capsaicin cream. Early treatment can help fight the virus and may prevent the severe, long-lasting pain called post-herpetic neuralgia or PHN.

Post-herpetic neuralgia sometimes causes severe pain in the same area that the rash appeared. The older you are when shingles occurs, the greater chance you have to develop PHN. Since the pain is sometimes severe, it may cause depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and weight loss. If you have severe pain, contact your health care provider; there are medications that may relieve some of your painful symptoms.

A herpes zoster vaccine is recommended for adults older than 60 years who have a healthy immune system.

 
 
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