What is shingles?

Shingles is an itchy, painful skin rash, typically located on one side of your face or torso.

It is caused by reactivation of varicella zoster, the same virus that causes chicken pox. Once you have been exposed to the virus, it can reactivate at any time.

Who is at risk?

Your risk increases as your immune system declines with age. Both men and women over 50 are at risk.

You could also be at a higher risk if you have a condition that weakens your immune system, like cancer or HIV/AIDS.


The symptoms include:

  • skin redness or blisters
  • itching or burning sensation
  • pain
  • fatigue


If you have signs of shingles, see your health care provider as soon as possible to be treated. Treatment typically consists of a seven-day course of an antiviral medication, which will shorten the length of the illness and its severity.

Delaying treatment, however, can lead to complications, including severe pain at the site of the healed rash. This pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia, can last for months or even years.


Like other viruses, varicella zoster can spread from one person to another (the virus itself, not the shingles). This happens only when the rash is in the “blister phase” and someone comes into contact with fluid from the blisters. Because of this risk, it is  recommended that you keep the rash covered, avoid scratching, and wash your hands often.

If you have shingles, you should avoid contact with pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, and premature or low birthweight infants.


There is only one way to prevent shingles: vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two doses of the shingles vaccine, Shingrix, for healthy adults ages 50 and older. The shingles vaccine is safe; it does not contain a live virus. The most common side effects include a reaction at the site of the injection, such as redness, swelling, and pain; muscle pain; fatigue; fever; headache; and an upset stomach.

In clinical trials, this vaccine was proven to be more than 90% effective in adults 50 years and older. 

The CDC recommends that you get the Shingrix vaccine even if you've already Zostavax, the older vaccine, because it is more effective than the older vaccine and the protection lasts longer.  Wait at least two months after you receive Zostavax to get the Shingrix vaccine.

It is important to note that the vaccine has not been studied in pregnant women or mothers who are nursing. The vaccine is available in your doctor’s office or local pharmacy. Check with your primary care provider to see if you should receive this vaccine.

Kathy Rebeiro, NP

Kathy Rebeiro, NP

Kathy Rebeiro is a nurse practitioner in women’s primary care and the pulmonary clinic at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative. Her specialty areas include women’s health issues, asthma education, and patient advocacy.