What Is Shingles and What Causes It?

You can think of shingles as the one-two punch of infections. Anyone who ever gets it had a case of the chickenpox first, often many decades earlier.

The reason these two conditions are paired up: They come from the same virus.

Chickenpox causes itchy blisters that might start on your back, chest, and face and spread to the rest of your body. Shingles is a rash with shooting pain. It usually shows up on just one side of your body.

If you start to feel tingly and itchy on one side of your torso and then notice a rash, call your doctor. She can examine you and figure out whether you have shingles.

Double the Trouble

The virus that gets the blame for both conditions is varicella zoster.

When it gets into your body, the first problem it causes is chickenpox, also called varicella. You may think of it as a childhood disease, but adults can get it, too.

After the chickenpox runs its itchy course, the virus retreats to nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain, where it hides out.

Doctors don’t know why, but sometimes the virus “wakes up” and travels along nerve fibers to your skin. That’s when it lands its second punch -- shingles, also called herpes zoster.

Who Gets It?

We know that a weakened immune system might wake the virus up. If you’ve had chickenpox, you’re more likely to get shingles if you:

  • Have cancer, HIV, or another disease that lower your body’s defenses
  • Are 50 or older
  • Are under a lot of stress
  • Have had a physical trauma
  • Take long-term steroids or other medicines that can weaken your immune system

But many people who get shingles do not fit in any of these categories.

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What Are the Symptoms?

If you have shingles, you’ll most likely see a row of raised dots pop up on one side of your body or face. Your skin will look red in that area. You’ll get a stabbing or shooting kind of pain. You may also feel:

The rash eventually turns into painful, red, fluid-filled blisters. They should begin to dry out and crust over within 7 to 10 days.

Call your doctor quickly if you have any of these signs. Shingles can’t be cured once you’re infected, but treatment can lessen how long it lasts and make you feel better.

Is It Contagious?

Yes. You can spread the varicella zoster virus to people who’ve never had chickenpox and haven’t been vaccinated.

You are contagious until all of the sores have crusted over. Until then, avoid pregnant women who may not have had chickenpox or the vaccine, people with weak immune systems, and newborns.

The FDA approved a shingles vaccine. It’s called Zostavax and has been available since 2006. The CDC recommends people 60 and older get it, even if you’ve had shingles before.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 13, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: “Shingles: Overview,” “Shingles: Diagnosis and Treatment.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Shingles: What Is Shingles?”

CDC: “Chickenpox: Complications,” “Shingles Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know,” “Shingles: Transmission.”

Mayo Clinic: “Shingles: Definition.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Shingles: What are the Symptoms of Shingles.”

National Institutes of Health.

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