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Protect Yourself from Shingles

What is shingles (herpes zoster)?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.  Shingles is an illness most commonly found in persons over age 60, but can occur at any age. 

What causes shingles?

After an attack of chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus lies dormant in your nerve tissue. As you get older, the virus may reappear in the form of shingles. The cause of the re-activation appears to be linked to aging, stress, or an impaired immune system. Often only one attack occurs, without recurrence.

Am I at risk for shingles? 

Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles.  If you have not had chickenpox previously nor received the chickenpox vaccine, a severe case of chickenpox may develop, rather than shingles. 

The risk of developing shingles at some time during your life is 30% and increases as you get older.  More than half of people 85 years and older have had 1 to 2 shingles episodes during their lifetime.

What are the symptoms of shingles?shingles.jpg

An outbreak of shingles usually begins with a burning, itching, or tingling sensation on the back, chest, or around the rib cage or waist. It is also common for the face or eye area to be affected. Some people report feeling feverish and weak during the early stages. 

Usually within 48 to 72 hours, a red, blotchy rash develops on the affected area. The rash erupts into small blisters that look like chickenpox, but tend to cluster in one specific area—most commonly the torso and face, and sometimes the lower body.

What are possible complications of shingles? 

The most common complication is post-herpetic neuralgia, pain that lasts longer than 90 days after the blisters erupt. 10-33% of individuals with shingles develop this condition and the risk increases with age.  Blisters on the skin may become infected with a bacterial infection, which can become very serious. Other complications include eye and brain infections, although these are rare. 

What is the treatment for shingles? 

Shingles can be treated with anti-viral medication that shortens the duration of the blisters (and sometimes the pain). Pain-relieving medications may also be prescribed for pain associated with shingles.

How can I prevent shingles? 

A new vaccine called Zostavax® (pronounced "ZOS tah vax"), very similar to the chickenpox vaccine, can help your immune system protect against shingles and its associated pain and complications.

Is Zostavax® available at Hall Health?

Yes, Zostavax® is available at Hall Health. Please inquire with your primary care provider for more information.

Who can get the Zostavax® vaccine?

Zostavax® is currently approved for use in patients who are age 60 and older.

Who should not get the Zostavax® vaccine?

You should not receive Zostavax® if you:

  • Are allergic to any of its ingredients (including gelatin or neomycin)
  • Have a disease or condition that causes a weakened immune system or are taking high doses of steroids by injection or by mouth
  • Have active TB (tuberculosis) that is not being treated

What are the potential side effects of Zostavax®?

The most common side effects of Zostavax® are mild and include redness, soreness, and swelling at the site of injection. Mild itching and headache may also occur.

Will my insurance pay for this vaccine?

Insurance coverage differs depending on your individual policy. Check with your insurance company about coverage for Zostavax®.  Medicare patients should check with the coordinator who oversees the coverage D plan.

Additional resources

Schedule an appointment at Hall Health Center

If you are a current UW-Seattle student or established Hall Health patient with questions, you may contact our Consulting Nurse service.


Authored by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff (KC), February 2014