15 COMMON MEDICAL MYTHS
6 Myths About Shingles You Still Believe
Have you seen the TV commercial for the shingles vaccine Zostavax? It shows a middle-aged man in an office with a dreadful looking rash on his face, wincing at meetings, and receiving the half-horrified, half-sympathetic attention of his colleagues. If you did, you probably thought,I hope I never getthatin my lifetime. But you might not be so lucky: 1 in 3 people will develop shingles at some point, says Richard Lorraine, MD, a shingles specialist and researcher in Harleysville, PA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 million Americans get the painful rash every year.
Despite how common shingles is, there's a lot of misinformation out there—which we're happy to clear up. Here are six myths and the facts you need to protect yourself.
Myth #1: Only elderly people get shingles.
Yes, your risk goes up as you get older, but the truth is that anyone can get it. Right now about half of all shingles cases crop up in people over age 60—which means the other half involve younger folks. In fact, the incidence of shingles in the under-60 crowd seems to be on the rise, though no one's fully sure why. If your immune system is compromised—due to having a condition like HIV or taking immune-suppressing medication to keep you from rejecting a transplanted organ—you're certainly at greater risk, says Niket Sonpal, MD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Medicine in New York City. Being under extreme stress may also play a role.
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Myth #2: If I get vaccinated, I'll stay safe.
Not exactly. It's true that the vaccine (Zostavax) greatly reduces your risk of getting shingles, but it doesn't drop the odds to zero. What it does do is cut your risk by about 50% and significantly reduce the chance of serious complications if you should get shingles anyway. Protection lasts about 5 years, which is why the CDC recommends that people ages 60 and up get vaccinated. ( is the first-ever plan that tackles the root cause of virtually every major ailment and health condition today; get your copy now!)
Myth #3: It's contagious.
You can't catch shingles from someone else. It's caused by varicella zoster, the same virus that causes chicken pox. If you ever had chicken pox (as is the case for most people born before the vaccine for it came out in 1995), you're at risk, because varicella zoster never leaves your body. "The virus 'sleeps' in your spinal cord, and when it gets 'woken up,' it causes what's essentially a localized chicken pox outbreak along a nerve pathway," says Lorraine. The location along the nerve is why the resulting shingles rash is so painful.
That said, if you've never had chicken pox (and haven't been vaccinated against it), you could catch the virus from someone with shingles and end up with chicken pox, says Holly Kanavy, DO, a dermatologist at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, NY. (Yes, even if you're an adult.) That doesn't happen too often, and it's only possible if you have direct contact with fluid from the blisters. "If there are no blisters present, there is no risk of spreading the virus," she says. Still, if you've never had the pox or the vaccine, it's best to steer clear.
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Myth #4: People who've never had chicken pox can't get shingles.
We just told you that you get shingles when the virus that causes chicken pox reactivates inside your body, so it would seem to follow that if you've never had chicken pox, you can't get shingles. But there's a catch: If you've had the chicken pox vaccine, you've been exposed to the virus that causes both chicken pox and shingles. "The varicella vaccine is a live, attenuated virus, so if you've gotten it, you have the virus in your body, same as if you'd had chicken pox," says Lorraine. Translation: You may be immune to chicken pox, but you're theoretically still at risk for shingles. No one really knows what the odds of shingles are in this case, since the varicella vaccine is only 20 years old, says Lorraine. Time will tell.
Myth #5: Once you have shingles, there's nothing you can do except wait it out.
Finally, some good news! If you get yourself to the doc ASAP (within the first 3 days), he can write you a prescription for an antiviral drug to reduce the severity of the outbreak, says Lorraine. Options include acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex). You can also treat the pain with over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription drugs. Some patients find that topical treatments made from capsaicin (extracted from chili peppers) provide relief. "Capsaicin blocks the chemical transmitter for pain signals," says Lorraine, but it might also cause a burning sensation.
Myth #6: Once you go through the worst of it, it's over.
Not so fast. Although the sores and blisters tend to disappear in about a month, the pain can last much longer—anywhere from weeks to years. Long-term pain that follows shingles is called post-herpetic neuralgia. "The damaged nerve sends impulses to the brain coded as 'throbbing pain,' " says Sonpal.
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