Health Conditions

Shingles

Shingles is another name for a condition called "herpes zoster" and is an infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

After people recover from chickenpox, the virus goes back to the roots of nerve cells near the spinal cord and becomes inactive. Later, when the virus is reactivated, the rash is called shingles.

If you have had the chickenpox vaccine, you are less likely to get chickenpox and therefore less likely to later develop shingles.

You can’t get shingles unless you have had chickenpox. Why the virus becomes active again is not known. Anything that weakens the immune system may reactivate the virus.

Most people will have shingles only once in their lifetime.

Symptoms

The rash begins with reddish bumps on one side of your body and only one area of the body.

In a few days, these bumps turn into small fluid-filled blisters. You might feel a stinging or burning pain.

The rash occurs most often on the trunk of the body, such as a band of blisters around your back and chest. Shingles also may appear on one side of the face or one arm or leg.

Some people feel tired and ill with fever, headache, and upset stomach.

Within a couple of days after the blisters appear, they begin to dry and scab over.

Over the next two weeks the scabs fall off.

Even though the rash gets better or goes away in a few weeks, the pain may last longer. This is a condition known as postherpetic neuralgia. About 1 in 5 people who get shingles develop postherpetic neuralgia. In most people, the pain goes away in one to three months.

If shingles occurs on the face, it can also affect your eyes, causing swollen eyelids, redness, and pain. Shingles of the eye is called herpes zoster ophthalmicus. People who have herpes zoster ophthalmicus should see an eye doctor right away.

Is shingles contagious?

No one can catch shingles from you, but they can catch chickenpox if they haven't already had chickenpox or had the chickenpox vaccine.

Shingles is much less contagious than chickenpox because it is spread only through direct contact with the blister fluid, whereas chickenpox can be spread through the air.

The varicella virus, which is the virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles, lives in the blisters from shingles, and the virus can be spread until the blisters are completely healed. If you have shingles, you should stay away from babies younger than 12 months and pregnant women.

How long does shingles last?

The rash from shingles usually heals in two to three weeks and the pain or irritation will usually fade away in three to five weeks.

Treatment

Shingles is often treated with an antiviral medicine to reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms. Acyclovir ( Zovirax), famciclovir ( Famvir), or valacyclovir (Valtrex) are commonly prescribed. These medicines work better if you start taking them in the first three days after you get the rash.

You can get some relief from the discomfort by:

  • applying cold water compresses to the rash.

  • taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

  • putting a medicated lotion (two brand names: Benadryl, Caladryl) on the blisters might reduce the pain and itching.

  • putting cool compresses soaked in an astringent liquid (brand name: Domeboro) on the blisters and sores might ease pain and itching.

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