What is shingles?

Shingles, also commonly known as herpes zoster, is a viral skin infection typically presenting on one side of the face or body as a painful rash.

Herpes zoster affects approximately 1 million people each year in the United States. More than 30% of the population develops a shingles episode in their lifetime.

Chicken Pox (Varicella) Cold Sore (Fever Blister) Genital Herpes

Causes of shingles

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. If you ever had chicken pox, typically as a child, this virus will continue to live (dormant) in your body the rest of your life. Occasionally, it can reactivate causing shingles.

Shingles is a part of the herpes virus family that also cause cold sores and genital herpes.

Risk factors for shingles

Risk factors for shingles are:

  • Age — shingles is most common in adults over the age of 50.
  • Weakened immune system — those who can’t fight infection may be more likely to get shingles.

Symptoms of shingles

Shingles typically affects only a small section of one side of the body. Pain is typically the first sign, and for some people, it is intense.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain, burning or tingling on your skin
  • Red rash
  • Itchiness
  • Blisters that break open and scab
  • Occasionally fever, chills, fatigue and headache

Diagnosis of shingles

Shingles is diagnosed by a primary care provider who will examine the rash, review your medical history (looking for exposure to the varicella zoster virus) and discuss your symptoms. Occasionally, they might send a small skin scraping to a laboratory in order to confirm presence of the virus.

If you have a severe case of shingles, you may be referred to a dermatologist for further treatment and follow-up.

Treatments for shingles

Although shingles can clear up within a few weeks, early treatment is strongly recommended. Without effective treatment, shingles can cause lifelong pain, numbness and itching.

Home therapy to treat rash symptoms include:

  • Calamine lotion
  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Cool compress

Treatments for the virus include:

  • Antiviral medication — antivirals such as famciclovir, valacyclovir and acyclovir that will help fight the infection and speed up healing. 
  • Nerve blocks — nerve block injections can reduce pain.
  • Corticosteroids — corticosteroids help reduce pain and swelling, but they are used only in specific cases because they could cause the rash to spread.

Some patients may need treatment after the rash clears. If so, your doctor may prescribe anti-depressants, pain relievers, anti-seizure medicines or anesthetic creams.

Recovery from shingles

Shingles usually lasts about two to five weeks. Typically, the disease will only activate once — although some people may develop shingles again.

Shingles cannot be passed to others, but the varicella zoster virus that causes shingles is contagious through direct contact with your rash and can spread to anyone who does not have immunity (like infants), resulting in a chicken pox infection. Once your blisters have crusted or scabbed over, the virus is no longer contagious.

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