What Is Shingles?
CDC: “Shingles (Herpes Zoster).”; NIH Senior Health: “Shingles.”; AudioJungle; Image Source Pink; Troels Graugaard; itsmejust
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.
The early signs of shingles include:
- Fever, chills, and headache
- Raised dots on your skin and redness in that area
- Stabbing or shooting pain
- Tingling 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.
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.
After chickenpox runs its course, the virus moves into the nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain, where it stays.
We 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.
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.
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 approved two shingles vaccines, Shingrix and Zostavax. Shingrix is newer and is preferred over Zostavax because 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 Zostavax vaccine.
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.
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: