What Causes Shingles Virus, Are You At Risk + Should You Get The New Vaccine? A Doctor Answers

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You've likely heard of the shingles virus, and maybe you've been seeing more information recently about the shingles vaccine. If you're unsure whether you should get the shingles vaccine — especially if you're in your 50s or 60s — you're not alone. Dr. Jen Caudle, a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University, has answers. Here, she breaks down the shingles virus, explaining what causes shingles, who is at risk and what the CDC recommendations are for the new shingles vaccine.

What Is Shingles?

"Shingles is a very painful rash that happens on one side of the face or the body. It typically happens in a band-like formation," Dr. Jen explains. "You start out with vesicles and over two to four weeks they start to crust over." The doc adds that in addition to the very painful rash — which can burn and itch — shingles may also come with symptoms like fever and malaise.

What Causes Shingles?

"Shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus," Dr. Jen says. The varicella-zoster virus lays dormant in your nerves once you've had chickenpox. "What happens in some people is that it may reactivate and if it does, it reactivates and forms shingles," she explains. 

Who Is At Risk For Shingles?

"One in three people actually get the shingles, and we think it happens in people who are older or have weakened immune systems," the doctor says.

Shingles Treatment

"Over 99% of people who are over the age of 40 have gotten chickenpox, whether we remember it or not," Dr. Jen says, "and that's why regardless of whether we've gotten chickenpox or not, the CDC still recommends the shingles vaccine for those who qualify for it."

Should You Get The Shingles Vaccine?

If you're sure you've never had chickenpox, but you qualify for the vaccine in all other respects, Dr. Jen still recommends getting the vaccine just to be on the safe side. "This is what I would say as a family doctor, because this is one of these gray areas," she says. "But chat with your doctor, because they may have some other ideas in mind. And remember this is not for everybody. Most people will qualify for the shingles vaccine, but there are some people who shouldn't take it."

A new version of the shingles vaccine was recently released, and the recommended age to get it changed from 60 to 50 years old. The new vaccine is over 90% effective at preventing shingles, Dr. Jen says. It requires two doses given two to six months apart, and you can get the vaccine even if you've already had shingles and if you've already received the old vaccine.

Is Shingles Contagious To Others?

According to the CDC, "shingles cannot be passed from one person to another." The virus that causes shingles can spread from a person with active shingles to cause chickenpox in someone who has never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine. However, it can only happen through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters —  it's not like spreading germs from everything you touch. You are not infectious before the blisters appear or once the rash crusts.

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