Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. Nearly one out of three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. The herpes zoster virus is not related to the virus that causes sexually transmitted herpes.
People who have had chicken pox, or even its vaccine, are at risk of getting shingles. After recovering from chicken pox, the virus goes dormant and remains inactive in the body. Years later, the virus may become active again in certain nerves in the body. The reason for this reactivation is not clear, but as people age they become more at risk of developing shingles. People over 60 years of age who have had chicken pox before the age of one are most at risk for developing shingles. However, it is possible for younger people (even children) to get shingles. Those with a weakened immune system due to disease or medications are also at a higher risk of contracting shingles.
Shingles cannot be spread from one person with an active rash to another by direct bodily contact. However, if contact occurs with a person who has not ever had chicken pox or its vaccine as a child, that person can develop chicken pox, and not shingles. It is rare, but possible, to have more than one case of shingles in your lifetime.
The first symptom of shingles is usually a painful rash on one side of the face or body. Blisters then form on the rash, which begin to scab over in 7-10 days and then fall off in 2-3 weeks. A person can also have itching, tingling or pain in the area before a visible rash develops.
A shingles rash typically occurs as a single stripe along just the left or right side of the body or face, not both sides. Only in rare cases does the rash develop along the entire body, and this is usually in people with weak immune systems. Sometimes a shingles rash can look similar to chicken pox.
Other symptoms of shingles include a fever, chills, abdominal pain, joint pain, swollen glands or headaches. Shingles can also affect the eyes and ears; if this is not treated, it can cause vision or hearing loss. If shingles is affecting a nerve in your face, it can cause drooping eyelids, loss of eye motion, vision problems, taste problems and difficulty moving muscles in the face.
Health care providers can usually diagnose shingles with a simple examination of the skin area. Tests or skin samples are rarely needed. Prescription antiviral drugs are used to treat shingles, which shorten the lifespan of the disease and prevent complications, along with reducing pain. These antivirals should be started within 72 hours of the initial pain or burning, or appearance of a rash, and hopefully before blisters appear.
Although these drugs are usually given in pill form, in severe cases they may be given intravenously. Analgesic pain medication may also be used for pain relief. To relieve itching, some treatments include wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths.
A vaccine exists for shingles and may be recommended by your primary care physician. The vaccine is generally given to the elderly or those at higher risk of shingles.