Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles. About 1 in 3 people will get shingles, and your risk increases as you age. Shingles is not a life-threatening condition, but it can be very painful. Although there is no cure, shingles can be prevented and treated. Here are some things you may not have known about the disease.
Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox, and even children, can get shingles.
Symptoms of shingles can include burning or shooting pain, numbness or tingling, itching, chills, fever, headache, sensitivity to light, fatigue, upset stomach, fluid-filled blisters that can break open and crust over, and a red rash that develops on one side of the body, usually on your face or around your waist.
There are now vaccines to help reduce the risk of shingles and early treatment of the virus with antiviral drugs can help shorten a single infection and lessen the chance of complications. These drugs are most effective when started within 72 hours of the first appearance of the rash. Pain medication can be used to help relieve the discomfort caused by the rash, which for some can be very severe. Benadryl is often used to help alleviate the localized itching.
Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles and can be so intense that it is sometimes mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs, or kidneys. Some even experience the pain without ever experiencing the rash.
Shingles are much more common in older adults most likely due to waning immunity as people age. Healthy adults age 50 and older should talk to their healthcare professional about getting the shingles vaccine to reduce their risk.
Your risk for contracting shingles is increased if your immune system is weakened or you have a disease that weakens your immune system such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, undergoing chemo or radiation, or even taking certain medications such as those drugs that are designed to prevent rejection of transplanted organs as well as prolonged use of steroids.
Psychological and emotional stressors are also thought to possibly contribute to the development of shingles, perhaps from the effects of stress on the immune system and the person’s health.
Generally shingles is not contagious, but a person with active shingles can spread the virus when the rash is in the blister phase. It’s important to keep the rash covered.
Complications from shingles can include postherpetic neuralgia where damaged nerve fibers send confused and exaggerated messages of pain from your skin to your brain, vision loss from shingles in or around the eye, neurological problems that include facial paralysis, hearing or balance issues, as well as skin infections if the blisters aren’t properly treated.
Most cases of shingles lasts 3-5 weeks. Most people get shingles only one time, but, it’s possible to have it more than once.
If you think you may have shingles, don’t wait on going to see your doctor. Early treatment will help clear it up faster and prevent worsening complications.