Dr. Jennifer Neville with BJC Medical Group discusses shingles.

What are shingles?

There’s a lot of misnomers out there about shingles. If you had chickenpox as a kid, that virus is actually still in our body and our immune system is keeping it at bay kind of along the spinal cord. If you have a breakdown in the immune system, like say you just are getting older or you’re getting chemotherapy, that virus escapes and comes out along one of those nerves. It’s a blistery rash, and it just follows that nerve so a lot of times it’ll be on one side of the chest or one side of the face. Some people feel like burning, itching before they even get any lesions, but it can be extremely painful. Some people can have permanent pain from it. If it’s over your eye, you can lose your vision, so it can be very serious actually.

Another misnomer is that you can give shingles to other people. You actually cannot do that. It’s the chickenpox virus, so if you were exposed to someone who has not had chickenpox or not been vaccinated you could actually give them chickenpox if they were to come in contact with those lesions.

What are the treatments for shingles?

If you’re having symptoms of shingles, you want to contact your doctor right away. If you can get and start Valacyclovir (an antiviral) within 24 to 48 hours of getting symptoms, you can maybe lessen the course or make it not as severe. If it’s gone on for five days or so, starting the medication is not going to do any good. Sometimes we also use medications like Gabapentin or Lyrica to treat shingles pain because it can be very painful, and those are medicines that help kind of calm down the nerve.

Is there a shingles vaccination?

There’s the new Shingrix shot that’s on the market. It’s for shingles. It’s a series of two injections about four to six months apart. It’s a lot more effective than the older vaccine that we had out. The old vaccine was a live virus so people who were immunocompromised could not get it. So if you were on chemo, you couldn’t get it. But this newer one is actually a dead virus, so it’s offered for all those people and helps prevent shingles. That’s a really good vaccine as well.