A small glass vaccine vial with a shingles vaccine label is shown on a table along with a syringe.
Shingles is a real concern, and one that can prevented with a vaccine. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

With measles, mumps and other outbreaks making headlines, one local expert said we should set our sights on another adults-only ailment making a comeback:


“I just know I’ve seen a lot of it lately,” said Christina Leonard, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health. “Because of that, I certainly encourage the vaccinations. You see these cases, and they’re often preventable. People can be really devastated by shingles.”

Here are seven things Dr. Leonard believes you should know about the shingles:

1. Cases are on the rise

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one million people will get shingles this year, and one in three people will get shingles in their lifetime.

“The baby boomers are getting into their twilight years,” Dr. Leonard explained. “They were all people who didn’t get the (chickenpox) vaccine that were exposed to the virus. As you age, your immunity wears off.”

2. Blame it on chickenpox

Shingles are caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.

According to the CDC, “after a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in the body. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.”

3. Remember, shingles start with tingles

Shingles start with a tingling sensation, Dr. Leonard said.

“The onset is you get a tingling or an itching,” she said. “That’s usually one of the first symptoms. The rash doesn’t usually come on until later. If you have that tingling or itching, and see these little red spots, you should get to your doctor right away and get on antivirals. You want to get evaluated right away.”

4. It’s often more serious than chickenpox

“Pain. That’s the thing that really bothers people the most, the exquisite pain of this rash,” Dr. Leonard said. “You don’t think it can be that bad. You think, ‘Chicken pox wasn’t that bad.’ But the second time around can bring nasty, nasty pain. It’s really debilitating.”

5. It can leave long-lasting effects

Shingles sufferers run the risk of developing post-herpetic neuralgia, which is the persistent nerve pain that lingers after you’ve had shingles.

“Most people don’t realize that this can stick around forever,” Dr. Leonard said.

6. Luckily, it doesn’t spread easily

“One of the other questions we get a lot is, ‘Am I contagious?’” Dr. Leonard said. “You can go to work. You just want to keep it covered. If you keep it covered, it’s not a big deal. If you’re around someone with a weak immune system, such as someone who’s pregnant, you should be extra cautious.”

7. There is a vaccine

Dr. Leonard said the shingles vaccine is often 100 percent covered by insurance, and recommended for anyone age 50 or older. It used to be age 60, but many younger people are getting shingles and the age was reduced by the CDC to 50.

“It gives you enough of a boost,” she said. “Even if you get the shingles vaccine, you can still get the shingles, but it decreases the severity and decreases the likelihood of long-term nerve pain.”