An Overview of Shingles

The varicella-zoster virus is responsible for causing chickenpox and shingles. Both chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster) are marked by an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin.

People who have had chickenpox in the past are at risk for developing shingles because the virus remains inactive in certain nerve cells of the body and can become active later in life.

Who Gets Shingles?

Scientists are not certain why the virus reactivates or why it only reactivates in about 20% of the people who have had chickenpox. There is evidence to suggest that a weakened immune system may cause the virus to break out of its dormant state, multiply, and move along nerve fibers to the skin. You may be at risk for shingles if you:

  • Have a weakened immune system (such as people with cancer or HIV)
  • Are over the age of 50
  • Have been ill
  • Are under significant stress
  • Have had a physical trauma

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Early symptoms of shingles include:

  • Pain that is itching, stabbing, or shooting
  • Tingling feeling in or under the skin, which is red in the affected area
  • Fever, chills, and headache
  • Stomach upset

After a few days, a rash appears as a band or a cluster of raised dots, only on one side of the body. The rash often appears around the waistline or face. The rash eventually develops into red, fluid-filled, round, painful blisters. Usually, these blisters begin to dry out and crust within 7 to 10 days.

How Is Shingles Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose shingles based on the way it looks, since the rash usually appears in a band on one side of the body. Shingles also may be diagnosed with the scraping or swab of the fluid from the blisters that can be analyzed in a lab.

How Is Shingles Treated?

There is no cure for shingles, but treatments for the condition can help ease the associated pain and discomfort. Treatments also can help the healing of blisters and rash.

Antiviral medications such as Zovirex, Valtrex, and Famvir can ease discomfort and reduce the duration of symptoms. In most cases, it is recommended that antiviral drugs be started within 72 hours of the first sign of shingles.

Pain medications can also offer relief. Tylenol or over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) can be effective in relieving mild pain. For more severe cases of pain, prescription NSAIDs or narcotic pain relievers may be necessary. In some cases, steroids can be prescribed to ease the discomfort, inflammation, pain, redness, and itching associated with shingles' rash and blisters. Routine use, though, is not recommended.