Shingles is a painful blistering skin rash. It is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It is also called zoster or herpes zoster. Shingles usually appears in a band, a strip, or a small area on one side of the face or body. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. It is a serious disease because it can cause severe nerve pain that can last for months. The nerve pain can last long after the shingles rash goes away.
Most people will only get it once. But some people can have more than one episode. Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. After the chickenpox clears, the virus stays inside the body. If the virus reactivates (wakes up), the result is shingles. The virus that causes shingles is not the same virus that causes oral or genital herpes. That virus is called the herpes simplex virus. The two are in the same family of viruses.
The risk of getting shingles increases with age. This is because they have weak immune systems. A vaccine can reduce your risk. Your doctor may recommend getting this vaccine after your 50th birthday or once you reach 60 years of age. The vaccine also lessens your risk of developing serious complications such as life-disrupting nerve pain.
What causes shingles?
The virus that causes chickenpox also causes shingles. After chickenpox clears, the virus stays inside the body. It travels to the nerves where it sleeps. However in some people, it stays dormant forever. But in others, the virus wakes up. This occurs when your immune system may get weaker. But after the virus becomes active again, it can only cause shingles, not chickenpox.
Is shingles contagious?
You can’t catch shingles from someone else who has it. But you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles. If you’ve never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, try to stay away from anyone who has shingles.
The virus lives in the blisters. It can be spread until the blisters are completely healed. If you have blisters that have not crusted over yet, you should stay away from:
- anyone who has never had chickenpox
- babies under 12 months old
- pregnant women
- very sick people (such as those with cancer or AIDS).
Who gets shingles?
A person must have had chickenpox to get shingles. Some people who have had chickenpox have a higher risk. You have a higher risk if you:
- Are 50 years of age or older
- Have an illness or injury
- Are under great stress
- Have a weakened immune system in cases such as:
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Shingles usually causes a painful, blistering rash. It commonly develops on one side of the face, back, the upper abdomen or head. But it can occur anywhere on the body. Sometimes pain, itching, or tingling start a few days before the rash appears.
The rash begins with reddish bumps. In a few days, these bumps turn into fluid-filled blisters. You might feel a stinging or burning pain. The rash might also itch. It typically scab over after 7–10 days. Other symptoms include:
The pain or irritation will usually go away in 3 to 5 weeks. However, if the virus damages a nerve, you may have pain, numbness or tingling for months or even years after the rash is healed. This condition is known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). It is most likely to occur in people over 50.
How do doctors diagnose shingles?
Your doctor will ask about about your medical history, including if you’ve ever had chickenpox. He or she will also ask about your symptoms and do an examination. If your doctor thinks you’re at risk, he/she can test some of the fluid from the blisters to see if it has the virus.
What are the treatments for shingles?
There is no cure for shingles says the MedlinePlus. However, antiviral medicines may help to make the attack shorter and less severe. They may also help prevent PHN. The medicines are most effective if you can take them within 3 days after the rash appears. Therefore, see your doctor right away if you think you may have the condition.
To treat the pain, doctors may prescribe a cream, spray, or skin patch to numb the skin and make it hurt less. Some prescription and over-the-counter medicines also can help ease pain. Your doctor might also have you take a steroid medicine. This medicine along with the antiviral medicines may reduce your risk of developing PHN.
To help manage symptoms of pain and itching at home, you can:
- Keep the affected area clean. Wash it with water and a mild soap.
- Apply a cool, wet compresses to the blisters several times a day to ease pain and itching. Cool the rash with ice packs, cool wet cloths, or cool baths.
- Oatmeal baths also can bring relief.
- Apply calamine lotion to the blisters.
- Cover the rash with loose, non-stick, sterile bandages.
- Wear loose cotton clothes around the body parts that hurt.
The best preventive measure is through vaccination. Vaccinate your children for chickenpox. This vaccine reduces their risk for getting chickenpox. You can’t get shingles unless you’ve had chickenpox first.
When you are older, get the vaccine. It is recommended for adults 50 years of age and older. It can prevent shingles. People who have had it should get the vaccine to help stop the disease from reoccurring. Common side effects of the vaccine are headache, plus redness, swelling, itching, and soreness at the injection site.
What are the complications?
Shingles is a serious disease. Because it can cause severe nerve pain that can last for months. It can also lead to: