Shingles is a painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. If you’ve already had chickenpox in your lifetime, the virus lies dormant and can be reactivated years later as shingles. Read on to learn more about this condition and how it is diagnosed, treated, and prevented.
The rash associated with shingles is typically limited to a small portion of one side of the body, which develops small, fluid filled blisters that break open and crust over. People with shingles may also experience pain, burning, numbness, tingling, itching, sensitivity to touch, fever, headache, light sensitivity, and fatigue. The pain associated with shingles can sometimes be intense. Symptoms associated with shingles usually last between two and six weeks.
Shingles Risk Factors
While anyone with the shingles virus can develop the shingles rash, it lies dormant in most people who have had chickenpox. People who are at higher risk for developing shingles include those older than age 50; who have a disease that weakens the immune system, such as HIV or cancer; who are undergoing cancer treatment; or who take certain medications, such as steroids.
If left untreated, shingles can cause complications such as ongoing nerve damage, skin infection, vision loss, and neurological problems. While there is no cure for shingles, antiviral drugs can return the virus to remission, alleviating symptoms. In the meantime, your doctor may prescribe treatments that help with the pain, such as cream, numbing agents, antidepressants, narcotics, or corticosteroid injection. As far as lifestyle remedies, a cool bath or compress can help soothe the skin during a shingles outbreak. Reducing stress can also help alleviate symptoms.
Two vaccines exist that can help prevent shingles. The varicella vaccine is administered to all children and can also be given to anyone who has never gotten chickenpox. Even if you get the virus after being vaccinated, the illness will often be shorter and less severe. Adults ages 50 and older should also get the shingles vaccine, also known as the varicella-zoster vaccine. Although it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop shingles, it can limit the course and severity of the disease if you do contract the virus, as well as reduce the risk for complications.
As with chicken pox, people who develop shingles usually only have one outbreak. However, it’s possible to have several episodes of shingles in your lifetime. If you have symptoms that you suspect may be shingles, talk to your doctor right away, especially if your rash is near your eyes or very painful and widespread or if you are older than age 70. It’s important to avoid people who may have a weakened immune system, such as infants and the elderly, since shingles is contagious.