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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the 89-year-old California Democrat, recently announced she is out of the hospital and recovering at home from shingles, a painful viral inflammation in the skin’s nerves that causes a blistering rash lasting for two to four weeks. Feinstein was diagnosed in February and hospitalized in San Francisco last week.
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — which is the same virus responsible for chickenpox. Varicella zoster is also responsible for a rare condition called Ramsay Hunt syndrome that caused pop star Justin Bieber’s face to become partially paralyzed in June 2022.
“As you can see, this eye is not blinking. I can’t smile on this side of my face. This nostril will not move,” Bieber said at the time in answer to fans who wondered why he had canceled performances.
Painful skin is one of first signs of shingles, and for some people, the pain is intense. It can create a burning sensation, or the skin can tingle or be sensitive to touch, according to the Mayo Clinic. Shingles can occur at other places on the body, such as the face and scalp, but the most common presentation is on the torso on one side of the body.
A red rash will begin to develop at the site of the pain within a few days. The rash often begins as a small, painful patch, which then spreads like “a stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of the torso,” the Mayo Clinic said.
In rare cases, the rash may become more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash, typically in people with weakened immune systems, according to the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition to pain, some people may develop chills, fatigue, fever, headache, upset stomach and sensitivity to light. See a doctor if you are over 50, have a weakened immune system, the rash is widespread and painful, or the pain and rash occur near an eye.
“If left untreated, this infection may lead to permanent eye damage,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
The varicella-zoster virus is highly contagious when in the blister stage, spreading through direct contact with the fluid from blisters and via viral particles in the air.
However, you cannot get shingles from someone who has shingles. If you aren’t vaccinated for chickenpox or haven’t previously had it and are infected by that person, you will develop chickenpox, which then puts you at risk for shingles later in life, the CDC said.
If you have shingles, you can prevent the spread of the virus by covering the rash and not touching or scratching the raised vesicles that form the rash, the CDC stated. Wash your hands often.
“People with shingles cannot spread the virus before their rash blisters appear or after the rash crusts,” the CDC said.
If the rash is covered, the risk of transmission “is low,” the CDC said. “People with chickenpox are more likely to spread (the virus) than people with shingles.”
If you think you have shingles, call a doctor as soon as you can, the CDC recommended. If caught early, there are antiviral medications, including acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir, that can shorten the length and severity of the illness.
“These medicines are most effective if you start taking them as soon as possible after the rash appears,” the CDC said.
Doctors may also suggest over-the-counter or prescription pain medication for the burning and pain, while calamine lotion, wet compresses and oatmeal baths may ease itching.
For older adults, the population most likely to develop shingles, the best treatment is prevention. The US Food and Drug Administration approved a two-dose vaccine called Shingrix in 2017 for people 50 and older.
“Shingrix is also recommended for adults 19 years and older who have weakened immune systems because of disease or therapy,” the CDC said.
Shingrix, which is not based on a live virus, is more than 90% effective in encouraging the aging immune system to recognize and be ready to fight the virus, according to its manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline.
Anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to a dose of Shingrix or is allergic to any of the components of the vaccine should avoid it, the CDC said.
“People who currently have shingles, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should wait to get Shingrix,” the CDC said.
Another vaccine called Zostavax, which the FDA approved for people over 50 in 2006, is 51% effective in preventing shingles, according to the CDC. Zostavax is based on a live virus, the same approach used for the chickenpox vaccine recommended in childhood. It has not been sold in the United States since November 2020.
If you have never had chickenpox, you can’t get shingles. However, once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in the spine’s sensory neurons, possibly erupting years later as shingles.
Two doses of a chickenpox vaccine for children, teens and adults, introduced in 1995, is 100% effective at preventing a severe case of chickenpox, according to the CDC. Immunity lasts 10 to 20 years, the CDC noted.
In the small number of people who still get chickenpox after vaccination, the illness is typically milder, with few or no blisters.
The CDC recommends the vaccine be given to children in two doses, the first between 12 and 15 months and a second one between 4 and 6 years. Anyone 13 years old and older who has no evidence of immunity can get two doses four to eight weeks apart, the CDC said.
Some people should not get the vaccine, including pregnant women, people with certain blood disorders or those on prolonged immunosuppressive therapy, and those with a moderate or severe illness, among others.
About 1 in 10 people will develop a painful and possibly debilitating condition called postherpetic neuralgia, or long-term nerve pain. All other signs of the rash can be gone, but the area is extremely painful to touch. Less often, itching or numbness can occur.
The condition rarely affects people under 40, the CDC said. Older adults are most likely to have more severe pain that lasts longer than a younger person with shingles. For some, the nerve pain can be devastating.
“Five years later, I still take prescription medication for pain,” said a 63-year-old harpist who shared his story on the CDC website. “My shingles rash quickly developed into open, oozing sores that in only a few days required me to be hospitalized.
“I could not eat, sleep, or perform even the most minor tasks. It was totally debilitating. The pain still limits my activity levels to this day,” said the musician, who has been unable to continue playing the harp due to pain.