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Understanding Shingles -- the Basics

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What Is Shingles?

Shingles (herpes zoster) results from a reactivation of the virus that also causes chickenpox. With shingles, usually the first thing you may notice is a tingling sensation or burning pain on one side of your body or face. Within days to weeks, red bumps and grouped, painful skinblisters then erupt in the same area of your face or body along the distribution of nerves on the skin. Typically, this occurs along your chest, abdomen, back, or face, but it may also affect your neck, limbs, or lower back. The area can be very painful, itchy, and tender. After one to two weeks, the blisters heal and form scabs, although the pain often continues.

Ten percent to 15% of people with herpes zoster develop deep pain that follows after the infection has run its course is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It can continue for months or even years, especially in older people. The incidence of shingles and of postherpetic neuralgia rises with increasing age. In fact, more than 50% of cases occur in people over 60. Shingles usually occurs only once, although it has been known to recur, usually in people with weakened immune systems.

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles arises from varicella-zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Following a bout of chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in the spinal nerve cells. But it can be reactivated years later when the immune system is suppressed by:

  • Physical or emotional trauma
  • A serious illness
  • Certain medications, like steroids

Medical science doesn't understand why the virus becomes reactivated in some people and not in others.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Lisa B. Bernstein, MD on March 18, 2015
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