Explainer: Shingles is more than a painful rash

Explainer: Shingles is more than a painful rash

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The chickenpox vaccine is effective in preventing chickenpox as well as shingles. It’s approved for children and adults. 

A clinical study demonstrating the efficacy of a vaccine in preventing shingles for over a decade made headlines in India last month as the pharma giant launched the vaccine in the country. However, awareness about the viral disease, also known as herpes zoster, is low, even among vulnerable population groups. 

Herpes zoster, not herpes 

First things first, shingles, or herpes zoster, is not the same as herpes, a sexually transmitted disease caused by herpes simplex virus. Shingles is a viral infection caused by varicella-zoster virus. When it first invades an individual’s body, the individual is infected by chickenpox. Even after recovery from chickenpox, the virus continues in latency in the sensory neurons. The latent virus reactivates and manifests as shingles when it finds conducive settings — weakened immune system due to ageing, or use of immunosuppressants, or emotional stress. 


The first symptoms show up as fever, muscle ache, exhaustion and mild to severe pain in the affected region. Visible signs include redness of the infected region and fluid-filled blisters. However, the most prominent sign of shingles and one that helps distinguish it from herpes is the occurrence of a band of blisters on one half of the body. Rarely, will the rash cross to the other side of the body or affect more than one site on the body. This band corresponds to the area, where the nerve transmits signals.

In certain cases, the pain can linger for months or even years after the infection has subsided. This condition is referred to as postherpetic neuralgia. Shingles could also manifest as an infection of the eye. Herpes zoster ophthalmicus can cause ocular complications and calls for urgent medical intervention.


Most cases of shingles last three to five weeks. There is no cure per se. However, as soon as one notices the symptoms, it’s prudent to seek medical advice. Most physicians administer antiviral medications and pain relievers. Further, dabbing the affected area of skin with topical antiseptics is recommended. 


The chickenpox vaccine, called the varicella vaccine, is effective in preventing chickenpox and shingles, later in life. It’s approved for children and adults. A combination vaccine for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and Varicella called the MMRV vaccine is another effective option.

While most individuals experience shingles only once in their lifetime, certain health conditions could trigger the recurrence of the viral disease. That’s why it’s recommended that people get the vaccine even if they have already had shingles in the past.

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