What is Shingles?

Shingles is a characteristic painful rash. For those who have had chickenpox either during their childhood days or as an adult, there’s a good chance the virus is still in your body. The varicella zoster virus can lie hidden for a long time without causing any symptoms. The virus may later wake up and travel along nerve fibers to the skin causing shingles.

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Shingles Rash

Shingles rash look like fluid-filled blisters often in a band around one side of the waist. Shingles can also appear around one eye, on one side of the forehead or anywhere on the body.

Shingles Symptoms

The first symptoms of shingles appear one to five days before the rash:

  • Itching
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Pain

These early warning signs are usually felt in the location where the rash will develop. Apart from the localized pain and rash symptoms of shingles, other signs may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach

Small blisters that appear only on the lips or around the mouth may be not be shingles but cold sores. They may be caused by the herpes simplex virus. Itchy blisters that appear after hiking or gardening could be a reaction to oak, poison ivy, or sumac. See your doctor if you aren’t sure what’s causing your rash.

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus. A person is first exposed to the virus through chickenpox attack. The virus never goes away, but remains dormant in nerve cells and may reactivate years later, causing shingles.

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Diagnosing Shingles

A doctor can diagnose shingles just by looking at the rash. Many childhood cases of chickenpox are mild enough to go unnoticed, but the virus can still linger and reactivate after a long time. You can prevent complications, by beginning treatment as soon as shingles appears.

How Long Does Shingles Last?

Shingles blisters usually scab over in 7-10 days and disappear completely in two to four weeks. In most healthy people, the blisters leave no scars, and the pain and itching go away after a few weeks or months. However, shingles may take longer to heal in people with weak immune systems.

Who’s at Risk for Shingles?

Anyone who has ever had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles, but the risk increases with age. People older than age 60 are 10 times more likely to get shingles than children under age 10. Other factors that makes you more susceptible to the shingles include:

  • Steroid medicines
  • Some cancer medicines
  • Long-term stress or trauma
  • A weak immune system from illnesses

A quarter of adults will develop shingles at some point, and most are otherwise healthy.

Is Shingles Contagious?

Your shingles rash may not affect another adult, but it can sometimes cause chickenpox in a child.  People who’ve never had chickenpox, or the vaccine to prevent it, can pick up the virus by direct contact with the open sores of shingles. So keep a shingles rash covered and avoid contact with infants, as well as pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the varicella vaccine.

Can Shingles Cause Chronic Pain?

In severe cases, shingles pain or itching may be devastating enough to cause insomnia, weight loss, or depression. In some people, the pain of shingles may hang back for months or even years after the rash has healed. This pain, due to damaged nerves in and beneath the skin.

Other Complications of Shingles

Shingles rashes that appears around the eye or forehead can cause eye infections and temporary or permanent loss of vision. If the shingles virus attacks the ear, people may develop hearing or balance problems. In severe cases, the shingles virus may attack the brain or spinal cord.

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Antiviral Medication

There is no cure for shingles, but antiviral medications can help stop the outbreak. Early treatment can make a case of shingles shorter and milder.  Doctors recommend starting prescription antiviral drugs at the first sign of a shingles rash. Options include acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famcyclovir.

Rash Relief treatment

Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-itch lotions, such as calamine, can also relieve the pain and itching of the shingles rash. Additional medications, such as corticosteroids, may be prescribed to reduce inflammation. Consult your doctor if the pain is excruciating and focused near an eye or ear.

Home Care for Shingles

Colloidal oatmeal baths can be used for relieving the itch of chickenpox and can also help with shingles. To speed up the drying out of the blisters, try placing a cool, damp washcloth on the rash (but not when wearing calamine lotion or other creams.) If your doctor gives you the green light, stay active while recovering from shingles.

Shingles Vaccine

Healthy adults ages 50 and older are recommended by CDC to get the shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which provides greater protection than Zostavax. The vaccine is given in two doses, 2 to 6 months apart. Zostavax can still be used for people ages 60 and older.

Who Should Not Get the Vaccine?

Do not get the shingles vaccine if:

  • You have a severe allergic reaction, such as anaphylaxis, to any ingredient of a vaccine or to a previous dose of Shingrix
  • You have shingles now.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding moms aren’t advised to take the vaccine.
  • You have had a negative test for varicella; this would be uncommon for adults eligible for the vaccine, as most adults worldwide ages 50 and older have been exposed to the virus. You do not have to be tested before getting the vaccine.



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