We often think of the cold virus as being “on the loose” during the winter months. Maine, having the oldest population in the country, has another virus, known as Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), that warrants attention at all times of the year. VZV is the virus that causes chickenpox in children but can cause a painful viral infection, known as shingles, usually in adults. After a person recovers from chickenpox, this virus remains within the body and for unknown reasons, some people experience the reactivation of the virus years later.
The shingles rash typically starts on one side of the face or body and presents as blisters that scab after 3-5 days. The rash usually clears within 2 to 4 weeks. The rash is preceded by painful itching and/or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. Other symptoms can include fever, headache, chills, and an upset stomach.
Shingles is contagious: a person with a rash can spread chickenpox to anyone who has not had the chickenpox! A healthcare or residential facility infection control policy will provide direction for people who have been diagnosed with shingles. Typically, this policy should address the need to keep the rash covered, avoid skin-to-skin contact with the rash, and diligent hand-washing to prevent the spread of VZV.
These infection control measures are important because VZV can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox through direct contact with the rash. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious. Additionally, a person is not infectious before blisters appear or with post-herpetic neuralgia (pain after the rash is gone).
Shingles is most common in adults over 50 years of age. Adults who have medical conditions that keep the immune system from working properly, such as cancer, leukemia, and immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or people who receive immunosuppressive drugs, such as steroids are at greater risk for shingles. The shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone 60 years of age and older to keep the virus from re-activating and causing shingles.
For more information visit the CDC website.