Shingles is an infection that causes a painful, burning rash on the body.
In most cases, shingles is not a life-threatening condition. It can cause severe pain, however, which can sometimes last for months.
Symptoms of shingles
The most common symptom of shingles is a painful rash that usually appears on one side of the body.
A few days before the rash develops, other symptoms may be present, including weakness, chills, muscle aches, and nausea. Some people also develop pain, itching, tingling, and burning on the skin before the rash appears.
The rash from shingles tends to develop in a certain pattern, most commonly on the trunk. It is sometimes referred to as a “shingles band” due to the striped pattern. The rash may start as red patches but changes over time and develops into fluid-filled blisters. These blisters may ooze.
After about 7 to 10 days, the blisters may crust or scab. Although it can vary, the rash often clears up in 2 to 4 weeks.
Typically, shingles appears on the trunk. The rash also can develop on other areas of the body, including the face. When the rash appears on the face, it often develops around the eyes or over the nose.
One of the biggest misconceptions about shingles is that it only affects older adults. Although people over the age of 50 are more likely to develop shingles, the disease can also affect younger people. Even children can develop shingles.
Some people may also be under the impression that the condition is rare. That’s not the case. In fact, shingles is common. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, about 50 percent of people who live to age 85 will develop shingles at some point in their life.
One of the most common complications of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia. The condition involves continued pain long after the rash from shingles clears up.
According to the CDC, postherpetic neuralgia affects about one-third of people over the age of 60 who develop shingles.
If it appears near or over the eyes, shingles can also lead to a severe infection of the retina, which can lead to vision loss. Bacterial skin infections are another possible complication.
How to tell the difference between shingles and other skin conditions
The characteristics of a rash may help doctors identify the cause. For example, hives are often raised and look like welts. Psoriasis often involves red patches that have white scales throughout the rash.
At first, the shingles rash appears as small raised dots. One difference between shingles and other rashes is the pattern that develops. The shingles rash often develops in a pattern along the nerves of the chest and belly.
A rash due to allergies or eczema may develop anywhere, including the legs and the arms. The shingles rash also tends to clear up in a few weeks. Rashes due to eczema and psoriasis may last longer. A shingles rash is also usually a lot more painful than other rashes.
The best way to work out if a rash is shingles is to see a doctor. In most cases, a doctor can make a diagnosis based on medical history, a physical exam, and symptoms.
Anyone who suspects they have shingles should consider seeing their healthcare provider. In some cases, medication is prescribed to speed recovery. Medications are most effective when taken within 72 hours of the rash appearing.
Causes and risk factors
A virus called varicella zoster causes shingles. Varicella zoster virus also causeschickenpox, which used to be a common childhood illness before a vaccine was developed.
Once a person is infected with chickenpox, the virus remains in their nervous system, even after they recover. Although the virus stays in the body, it’s considered latent, which means it’s inactive and does not cause any symptoms.
At some point, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles. The reason the virus reactivates is not entirely clear. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may become active again if a person’s immune system becomes weakened or stressed.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for developing shingles. Factors that increase a person’s chances of developing the condition include being over age 50 and having a disease that weakens the immune system.
People taking medications that decrease their immune system function, such aschemotherapy or steroids, are also at an increased risk for shingles.
According to the CDC, shingles is not transmitted from person to person. The varicella zoster virus can be transmitted, but a person exposed to it develops chickenpox instead of shingles if they have not had chickenpox in the past.
Treatment for shingles
Currently, there is no cure for shingles. Treatment is available to decrease the severity of the infection and reduce symptoms.
For example, antiviral medications may be recommended. Antiviral medication for shingles does not kill the virus. Instead, it stops it from multiplying, which may shorten the length of the illness.
Medications to treat pain may also be prescribed. Various medications are available, including creams, which are applied to the skin, and oral medications.
Home treatment may include applying cool compresses to the skin to ease the pain.
It’s also important to prevent the virus from spreading. Although shingles itself cannot be transmitted, the virus can be passed on, possibly causing chickenpox.
Someone with shingles is not contagious once the blisters have scabbed over and are no longer weeping. Before they have scabbed over, it is important to keep them covered around other people.
One way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated. The chickenpox vaccine is often given as a routine childhood vaccine. Adults who have not had chickenpox can also get the vaccine.
For those who have already had chickenpox, there is also a shingles vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration approved the shingles vaccine for adults over the age of 50. The CDC recommend adults over the age of 60 who have a history of chickenpox get the vaccine. There is no maximum age for getting the vaccine.
It’s important to understand that both vaccines do not guarantee an individual will not be infected with the virus. They do substantially decrease a person’s chances of developing the diseases, however.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the shingles vaccine provides protection from the virus for about 5 years. After that, the effectiveness of the vaccine decreases. Currently, the vaccine is only given once.
Shingles can affect someone more than once. People who have already had shingles can also get vaccinated to prevent getting the infection again.
The shingles vaccine is safe for most people. As always, someone considering the vaccine should discuss it with their doctor. Side effects from the vaccine are usually mild and include pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site.
Written by MaryAnn de Pietro