Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a common condition that causes a painful rash. If you have ever had chickenpox, you can develop shingles later on. In America, one in three people will get shingles at some time in their lives.
What does shingles look like?
The most characteristic symptom of shingles is a rash of raised blisters, accompanied by stabbing or shooting pain. This rash can affect any part of the body, but it most often wraps around the left or right side of the torso. Usually, the pain is on the same side of the body as the rash.
Other shingles symptoms can include:
- Tingling feeling under the skin
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
What causes shingles?
Shingles is an illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox.
When you first contract the varicella-zoster virus, you get chickenpox. After the chickenpox rash clears up, the varicella-zoster virus moves into the nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain, where it stays inactive. It may remain here for the rest of your life without causing any problems. In some people, however, the virus reactivates years or decades later. When it reactivates, it travels to the skin and causes the shingles rash.
How long does shingles last?
Shingles usually lasts for about two to six weeks. If you continue to experience pain after your rash has cleared up, you may have developed a complication called postherpetic neuralgia.
About 20% of people who get shingles also develop postherpetic neuralgia, a condition that causes continued pain after the shingles rash has disappeared. This can happen when shingles causes inflammation that damages the nerve fibers and roots. This affects the nerves’ ability to send accurate messages from your skin to your brain, causing pain.
Postherpetic neuralgia can last from months to years, and is sometimes permanent. There is no cure for the condition, but there are medications that can ease the symptoms.
Is shingles contagious?
While the varicella-zoster virus is contagious, shingles itself cannot be spread directly from person to person. When someone contracts the varicella-zoster virus, they can develop chickenpox. The virus then becomes inactive and may stay inactive for the person’s entire life. They will only develop shingles if the virus reactivates later on.
The varicella-zoster virus can be spread to a person who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. If you think you might have shingles, be careful to keep any open blisters covered, and avoid people who are at risk of contracting the virus. If you have been in close contact with a pregnant person who hasn’t had chickenpox or the vaccine, advise her to see her OB-GYN, even if she doesn’t have any symptoms, as the virus can cause serious complications in pregnancy.
Who is most at risk for shingles?
Doctors don’t know why the varicella-zoster virus sometimes reactivates to cause shingles, but there are several known risk factors that make getting shingles more likely. These include:
• Being over the age of 50
• Excessive stress
• A past severe injury
• A weakened immune system. This can be caused by certain diseases, cancer treatments, long-term steroid use, or medications that help the body accept transplanted organs.
Can children get shingles?
Children can get shingles, although it is uncommon. A child is more likely to get shingles if:
• The child had chickenpox before the age of one
• The child’s mother had chickenpox late in pregnancy
You can reduce your child’s chance of getting chickenpox and shingles by talking to your doctor about getting the chickenpox vaccine for your child.
How can I avoid getting shingles?
There are vaccines that can reduce your chances of getting chickenpox or shingles. Vaccines also reduce the chances of complications, and make symptoms less severe.
The chickenpox vaccine is now considered a routine childhood vaccination. Adults who have never had chickenpox should consider getting this vaccine.
The shingles vaccine is recommended for people over the age of 50.
Talk to your medical provider to learn if one or both of these vaccines are right for you, especially if you are over 50 years old.
Do I have shingles? How is it diagnosed?
The diagnosis of shingles should always be performed by a licensed healthcare professional. If you think you might have shingles, visit your doctor or a Physicians Immediate Care clinic for an examination as soon as possible.
To diagnose your condition at Physicians Immediate Care, your medical provider will run a full physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history. If shingles is suspected, a tissue scraping or culture of the blisters may also be taken for testing.
How is shingles treated?
While there is no cure, shingles treatment can speed your recovery and lower the chances of complications. Shingles is usually treated with medications. These can include antiviral medications to fight the varicella-zoster virus, as well as painkillers or antidepressants to reduce your pain.
While you recover from shingles, it is important to keep your rash covered and avoid contact with people who haven’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.
Your medical provider may advise you to return for one or more follow-up visits. Be sure to attend all appointments to optimize your recovery and help prevent complications.
Early treatment can reduce the severity of shingles and help protect you from developing serious complications. Physicians Immediate Care makes it easy for you to see a medical provider sooner. Our 40+ clinics are open extended hours on both weekdays and weekends. Find a nearby clinic and book an appointment or simply walk in to receive the timely, quality healthcare you deserve.