Shingles is a viral infections which results in a painful rash. Shingles can occur anywhere on the body, but it usually appears as a stripe of blisters wrapping around one side of your torso.
The varicella-zoster virus (the same virus that causes chickenpox) causes shingles. After you’ve had chickenpox the virus remains dormant in nerve tissues near your brain and spinal cord. Many years later, the virus can reactivate as shingles.
Shingles is not a life-threatening condition, but it is very painful. Vaccines can help to reduce the risk of shingles, and early treatment with antiviral shingles medication can help shorten a shingles infection as well as lower your risk of complications.
The symptoms and signs of shingles usually only affect a small section of one side of your body.
The signs and symptoms of shingles may include:
- Burning, numbness, tingling or pain
- A red rash which starts a few days after the pain
- Sensitivity to being touched
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over.
Some people also experience:
- Sensitivity to light
Usually pain will be the first symptom of shingles that presents itself. For some people that pain can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, it can be mistaken for symptoms of problems that would affect the lungs, kidneys, or heart. Some people experience the pain from shingles without developing a rash.
Usually the rash from shingles will develop as a stripe of blisters. These blisters will wrap around either the left or right side of the torso. Sometimes, the shingles rash occurs on one side of the neck or the face, or around one eye.
The cause of shingles is the varicella-zoster virus. This virus is also the cause for chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox previously is at risk of developing shingles. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus may enter the nervous system and stay there, dormant for years.
Eventually, the varicella-zoster virus may reactivate and travel along the nerve pathways to your skin which produces shingles. Not everyone who has had chickenpox will develop shingles.
The reason for shingles is not clear. It could potentially be due to a lowered immunity to infections when you age. Shingles is more common in adults as well as people with weakened immune systems.
The varicella-zoster virus is a part of the group of viruses called herpes viruses. This includes the viruses that cause genital herpes and cold sores. Because of this, shingles is also called herpes zoster. The virus that causes chickenpox and shingles is not the same as the virus that is responsible for cold sores or genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection.
Are you contagious?
Someone who has shingles can pass on the varicella-zoster virus anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox. This generally occurs through direct contact with the open sores from the shingles rash. Once infected, the other person will not develop shingles, but will get chickenpox instead.
Chickenpox may be dangerous to some people. Until the blisters from your shingles scab over you’re contagious. You should avoid physical contact with people who haven’t already had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, especially newborns, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems.
Shingles is generally diagnosed based on the presence of pain of one side of the body, alongside the normal rash and blisters. Your doctor might also get a culture of the blisters or tissue scraping to be examined in the laboratory.
There is no cure for shingles, however, prompt treatment using antiviral shingles medication can speed healing and reduce the risk of experiencing complications.
Antiviral shingles medications include:
Shingles can cause very intense pain, so alongside your antiviral shingles medication, your doctor may also prescribe:
- Capsaicin topical patch (Qutenza)
- Anticonvulsants like gabapentin (Neurontin)
- Tricyclic antidepressants (Amitriptyline)
- Numbing gels, creams, skin patches, or sprays such as lidocaine
- Medications containing narcotics (Codeine)
- An injection that include local anesthetics and corticosteroids.
Shingles usually last between two to six weeks. Most people will only get shingles once, but it is possible to get two or more times.