Shingles is an infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. This virus is called varicella zoster. You cannot develop shingles unless you have had a previous infection of chickenpox (usually as a child).
Shingles is also called herpes zoster. This infection is most common in people over 60 years of age, but young people can have it as well.
How does it occur?
After you recover from chickenpox, the chickenpox virus is not destroyed. It moves back to the roots of your nerve cells (near the spinal cord) and becomes inactive (dormant). Later, if the virus is reactivated, the symptoms are called shingles.
What exactly causes the reactivation of the virus is not known. A weakened immune system seems to allow reactivation of the virus. This may occur with immune-suppressing medicines, with another illness, or after major surgery. It is also seen as a complication of cancer or AIDS. Advancing age and chronic use of cortisone-type drugs may trigger shingles. The virus may also become active again after the skin is injured or sunburned. Emotional stress seems to be a common trigger as well.
What are the symptoms?
The first sign of shingles is often burning, sharp pain, tingling, or numbness in or under your skin on one side of your body or face. The most common site is the back or upper abdomen. You may have severe itching or aching. You also may feel tired and ill with fever, chills, headache, and upset stomach.
After several days, you will notice a rash of small, clear, fluid-filled blisters on reddened skin. Within 3 days after they appear, the blisters will turn yellow, then dry and crust over. Over the next 2 weeks the crusts will drop off, sometimes leaving small, pitted scars.
Because they tend to follow nerve paths, the blisters are usually found in a line, often extending from the back or flank around to the abdomen, just on one side. Shingles usually doesn't cross the midline of the body. (The word shingles comes from the Latin word for belt or girdle.) The rash also may appear on one side of your face. Some people have painful eye inflammations and infections.
Is shingles contagious?
You cannot get shingles from someone else, but you may get chickenpox from contact with shingles blisters if you have not had chickenpox before. The shingles virus is in the blister fluid. The virus can spread by direct contact with a blister. It can also be spread by indirect contact, for example, if you use a washcloth that has blister fluid on it.
If you have shingles, avoid contact with infants, children, pregnant women, and adults who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox shot until your blisters are completely dry.
How is shingles diagnosed?
Your health care provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Your provider may order lab tests to look for the virus in fluid from a blister.
How is it treated?
It is best to start treatment within 24 to 48 hours after symptoms start. Home care includes:
Putting cool, moist washcloths on the rash.
Taking nonprescription painkillers, such as acetaminophen.
Your health care provider may prescribe:
an antiviral drug, such as acyclovir, to speed recovery and lessen the chance of prolonged symptoms from nerve inflammation
antibacterial salves or lotions to help prevent bacterial infection of the blisters
capsaicin cream for pain
corticosteroids (if you are over 50).
How long will the effects last?
The rash from shingles will heal in 1 to 3 weeks and the pain or irritation will usually disappear within 3 to 5 weeks.
If the virus damages a nerve, you may have pain, numbness, or tingling for months or even years after the rash is healed. This is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia. It is most likely to occur after a shingles outbreak in people over 50 years old. Antiviral medicine prescribed at the time the shingles is diagnosed and taken for 7 days can help prevent this problem.
Rare effects of shingles include headaches and paralysis of one side of the face (causing that side of the face to look droopy). Even if you have a severe case, however, all of the symptoms usually go away eventually, but it may take months or years.
How can I take care of myself?
Take a pain-relief medicine such as acetaminophen. Take other medicine as prescribed by your health care provider.
Put a cool compress on the rash (such as a cool, moist washcloth).
Rest in bed during the early stages if you have fever and other symptoms.
Try to avoid having clothing or bed linens rubbing against the rash, which might irritate it.