Shingles is an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus – the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. It may not cause problems for many years. But as you get older, the virus may reappear as shingles.
Shingles are not contagious. 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.
If you have shingles, try to stay away from anyone who has not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, or anyone who might have a weak immune system.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of getting shingles. But this risk goes up as you get older; shingles are most common in people over age 50.
People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of getting shingles. This includes those who:
● Have immune system diseases such as HIV/AIDS
● Have certain cancers
● Take immunosuppressive drugs after an organ transplant
Your immune system may be weaker when you have an infection or are stressed. This can raise your risk of shingles.
It is rare but possible, to get shingles more than once.
After you get chickenpox, your body does not get rid of the virus. Instead, the virus remains in the body but is inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Shingles occur after the virus becomes active again in these nerves after many years. Many people had such a mild case of chickenpox that they do not realize they have had the infection.
The reason the virus suddenly becomes active again is not clear. Often only one attack occurs.
Shingles can develop in any age group. You are more likely to develop the condition if:
• You are older than age 60
• You had chickenpox before age 1
• Your immune system is weakened by medicines or disease
If an adult or child has direct contact with the shingles rash and did not have chickenpox as a child or get the chickenpox vaccine, they can develop chickenpox, not shingles.
Early signs of shingles include burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching. It is usually on one side of the body or face. The pain can be mild to severe.
One to 14 days later, you will get a rash. It consists of blisters that typically scab over in 7 to 10 days. The rash is usually a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face. In rare cases (usually among people with weakened immune systems), the rash may be more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash.
Some people may also have other symptoms:
● Upset stomach
What are the treatments for shingles?
There is no cure for shingles. 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. So if you think you might have shingles, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.
Pain relievers may also help with the pain. A cool washcloth, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itchings.
What other problems can shingles cause?
Shingles can cause complications:
● Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication of shingles. It causes severe pain in the areas where you had the shingles rash. It usually gets better in a few weeks or months. But some people can have pain from PHN for many years, and it can interfere with daily life.
● Vision loss can happen if shingles affect your eye. It may be temporary or permanent.
● Hearing or balance problems are possible if you have shingles within or near your ear. You may also have weakness of the muscles on that side of your face. These problems can be temporary or permanent.
Very rarely, shingles can also lead to pneumonia, brain inflammation (encephalitis), or death.
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider can make the diagnosis by looking at your skin and asking about your medical history.
Tests are rarely needed but may include taking a skin sample to see if the skin is infected with the virus.
Blood tests may show an increase in white blood cells and antibodies to the chickenpox virus. But the tests cannot confirm that the rash is due to shingles.
Courtesy of MedlinePlus from the National Library of Medicine