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What is some helpful information about shingles?

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Quick Answer

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus. This virus also causes chickenpox in children and may be reactivated later in life, which results in shingles. According to the National Institute on Aging, shingles affects approximately one in five individuals who have had chickenpox.

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After a child is infected with chickenpox, some of the virus remains inactive in the body. When activated, the virus infects nerve cells causing pain and a band of blisters or a rash, notes the National Institute on Aging. Although scientists do not know what causes the virus to reactivate, age and diseases that suppress the immune system, such as AIDS and cancer, seem to put individuals at increased risk, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The National Institute on Aging states that shingles usually goes away within three to five weeks; however, some patients experience lingering pain. Doctors treat lasting pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia, with steroids, analgesics and other medications.

Shingles is usually seen in the elderly and only rarely affects children. Once a person has had shingles, it is unlikely to reoccur. The University of Maryland Medical Center estimates only 6 percent of individuals experience a recurrence of shingles. Shingles is not contagious; however, the National Institute on Aging warns that individuals might be infected with chicken pox if they have not had the disease before and come into contact with a shingles blister.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a shingles vaccine called Zostavax, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The vaccine is recommended for individuals over the age of 50 by the FDA; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many insurance companies do not recommend the vaccine until a person is 60.

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