What Is Shingles?
These two conditions come from the same virus, called varicella zoster.
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 one side of your body.
The rash turns into red, fluid-filled blisters. They usually dry out and crust over within 7 to 10 days.
Symptoms of Shingles
The early signs of shingles include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Fever, chills, and headache
- Raised dots on your skin and redness in that area
- Stabbing or shooting pain
- Tingling or burning feeling in or under your skin
- Upset stomach
Call your doctor quickly if you have any of these signs. There’s no cure for shingles. But treatment can lessen the chance of complications, including pain that lasts after the rash is gone, called postherpetic neuralgia.
Causes of Shingles
When the varicella zoster virus gets into your body, the first problem it causes is chickenpox. You may think of it as a childhood disease, but adults can get it, too.
We don’t know why, but sometimes, years later, 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.
Shingles Risk Factors
A weakened immune system might wake up the virus. After you’ve had chickenpox, you’re more likely to get shingles if you:
- Are 50 or older
- Are under a lot of stress
- Have cancer, HIV, or another disease that lowers your body’s defenses
- Have had a serious physical injury
- Take long-term steroids or other medicines that can weaken your immune system
But many people who get shingles don’t fit into any of these categories.
Complications of Shingles
Shingles can have complications that last long after the rash is gone, including:
Is Shingles Contagious?
Yes. You can spread the varicella zoster virus to people who’ve never had chickenpox and haven’t been vaccinated.
The FDA has the Shingrix vaccine and it’s considered more than 90% effective. The CDC recommends that people 50 and older get it, even if you’ve had shingles before. You should also get it even if you already had the earlier Zostavax vaccine, which was removed from the market in 2020.
The vaccine is also approved for anyone over the age of 18 who are at risk for shingles because they are or will be immunodeficient or immunosuppressed because of another illness or treatment.
Your doctor can diagnose shingles by asking about your medical history and your symptoms and by doing a physical exam. They can also test small amounts of material from your blisters.
Treatment for Shingles
Antiviral drugs can help you heal faster and cut your risk of complications. They’re most effective if you take them within 3 days of the start of a rash, so see your doctor as soon as possible. You’ll probably get one of these three medications to fight the virus:
Treatments for shingles pain can include:
- Anticonvulsant medicines like gabapentin (Neurontin)
- Antidepressants like amitriptyline
- Colloidal oatmeal baths
- Cool compresses
- Medicated lotion
- Numbing medications like lidocaine
- Over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Prescription painkillers like codeine
Most people who get shingles only have it once. But it can come back, usually in people with weakened immune systems.