Shingles is a painful rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the one responsible for chickenpox, and is also known as herpes zoster. According to the CDC, nearly one out of every three Americans will develop shingles at some point in their lifetime. If you have ever had chickenpox, then there is a risk that you may develop shingles. After your body fights off chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in nerve roots in your body. The shingles virus occurs after the virus becomes active again and travels along your nerve pathways, triggering a painful, blistering rash. Anyone who has been exposed to the varicella zoster virus can develop shingles. A person is more likely to get them if they are older than 60, had chickenpox before age one, or are immunocompromised due to disease or medications. There are an estimated one million cases of shingles in the United States each year, and about half are men and women age 60 or older.
Despite having the name herpes zoster, shingles is not from the same virus that causes cold sores or genital herpes, but it is a part of the herpes group of viruses. The reason why the shingles virus is reactivated after years of lying dormant is unknown, but factors such as age, stress, medications or a compromised immune system are all believed to contribute to triggering an episode. The majority of people will only experience a shingles outbreak once, but it is possible to see a reoccurence.
Signs and Symptoms Of The Shingles Virus
The symptoms of the shingles virus generally happens in stages. The first stage is pain, itching, burning or tingling in the area where the outbreak will occur. This can happen any time from one to five days before a rash appears. In a typical shingles outbreak, the rash will occur as a band or strip on only one side of the patient’s body. Some may only develop a mild rash while others will not develop one ever. The rash then develops into bands of painful blisters that fill up with fluid before crusting over. The blisters can take anywhere from two to four weeks to clear up. Other signs and symptoms of shingles include: headache, fever, fatigue, dizziness, chills, light sensitivity, weakness, sensitivity to touch, upset stomach, joint pain, and itching.
Doctors can usually diagnose shingles by looking at the rash or blisters on your body, considering your other symptoms and inquiring about your medical history. In some cases, your doctor may take a skin sample or culture of your blisters to confirm the presence of antibodies to the varicella zoster virus.
Shingles treatment commonly begins with an antiviral drug aimed at reducing pain, preventing complications and shortening the length of the outbreak. To help your body fight the shingles virus quicker and prevent long-term complications, it is important to start treatment within 72 hours of symptoms first appearing. Other treatments include anti-inflammatory medications to help reduce pain and swelling, antihistamines to lessen the itching, and other pain relievers. There are also at-home remedies you can try to treat the shingles virus, such as applying a cool, wet compress to your blisters, taking soothing oatmeal baths, and resting.
The majority of people who get herpes zoster will make a full recovery, but there can be some complications, such as temporary or permanent paralysis or weakness. This occurs when the shingles virus affects the nerves that control your motor skills. Another complication is postherpetic neuralgia, in which the area affected by singles remains painful for months or years afterwards.
According to the CDC, the only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles or to lessen the severity of your outbreak is to get vaccinated against it. The shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone aged 60 or older, and is available in doctor’s offices and pharmacies. Shingles are not contagious, but the varicella zoster virus is, so be careful not to touch someone with shingles if you have not had chickenpox or the vaccine.