When we were kids, we remember having chickenpox or knew other kids who had it, right? Well, shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox. Because of this similarity, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about shingles.
We can help you sort out fact from fiction with these 8 busted myths about shingles.
Myth 1: Shingles is the same thing as chickenpox.
Although both shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus, you can only get shingles if you’ve already had chickenpox.
Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus continues to live in your nerve cells near your spine and lies dormant. When the virus is reactivated, it travels along a single nerve line to the skin. That’s when you see the rash.
Myth 2: The first sign of shingles is a rash.
The first signs may include malaise, headache, sensitivity to light, abnormal skin sensations (burning, itching and tingling pain underneath your skin), and occasionally fever. But the belt-shaped rash is soon to follow – usually between 1 and 5 days after the first sign. The rash then develops fluid-filled blisters. Sometimes, the infected area might only be itchy. But in many cases, it is intensely painful – even from something as mild as a light breeze.
Myth 3: Shingles always show up on your torso.
Shingles can show up anywhere, torso, extremities or head and neck. Typically, it will only show up on one side of the body. Bilateral manifestations are variable, even rare. As we mentioned above, it travels from one nerve line to your skin. It commonly shows up on the torso because of its relativity to the nerves near the spine.
Myth 4: Symptoms only last a couple weeks.
Not always. Some people can have shingles for several months – and complications from shingles can be permanent. Sometimes the location of shingles determines the complexity. For example, shingles on the forehead – which 15% of people get – can create complications. Shingles in this area are a problem because it can spread to the eyes, causing injury to the corneas and sometimes blindness. It can also cause neurological complications and paralysis.
The good news is, most people who get shingles don’t have complications and therefore, symptoms usually last between 3 to 5 weeks.
Myth 5: Shingles is contagious.
Not exactly. A person with shingles can’t spread shingles to another person. They can, however, spread the virus, resulting in chickenpox. If the oozing rash from shingles were to touch someone who has never had chickenpox (nor been vaccinated against chickenpox), the chances are likely that person will get chickenpox.
Myth 6: The only treatment is to do nothing and let it run its course.
This is the worst thing you could do. The moment you suspect you are getting shingles, go to the doctor. If you can start treatment within 72 hours, your symptoms will likely go away quicker. Delaying treatment can result in months of severe pain.
We prescribe patients with antivirals to reduce the viral load in the body and prescription pain medication to minimize the pain and induce healing, as well as to prevent post herpetic neuralgia, or chronic nerve pain that can last years.
Myth 7: There is nothing you can do to prevent shingles.
Not true. You can get a one-time shingles vaccine, which decreases your chances of getting shingles by 50%. It is especially important for people age 60 and older to get vaccinated because the risk of getting shingles increases significantly in advanced age.
Today’s generation is being vaccinated against chickenpox and therefore is preventing not only the primary disease but also this secondary manifestation of the disease, i.e. shingles.
Myth 8: Once you get shingles, you’ll never get it again.
While true for most people, it’s not a hard and fast rule. An estimated 5% of people get shingles recurrence.