What is shingles?
Shingles is an infection
caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes
chickenpox. Even after the chickenpox infection is over, the virus may live in
your nervous system for years before reactivating as shingles. Shingles may
also be referred to as herpes zoster.
This type of viral infection
is characterized by a red skin rash that can cause pain and burning. Shingles
usually appears as a stripe of blisters on one side of the body, typically on
the torso, neck, or face.
Most cases of shingles clear
up within two to three weeks. Shingles rarely occurs more than once in the same
person, but approximately 1 in 3 people in
the United States will have shingles at some
point in their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Symptoms of shingles
The first symptoms of
shingles are usually pain and burning. The pain is usually on one side of the
body and occurs in small patches. A red rash typically follows.
Rash characteristics include:
- red patches
- fluid-filled blisters that break easily
- a rash that wraps around from the spine to the
- a rash on the face and ears
Some people experience
symptoms beyond pain and rash with shingles. These symptoms may include:
- a fever
- a headache
- muscle weakness
Rare and serious complications
of shingles include:
- pain or rash that involves the eye, which should be treated in
order to avoid permanent eye damage
- loss of hearing or intense pain in one ear, dizziness, or loss
of taste on your tongue, which can be symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome
- bacterial infections, which you may have if your skin becomes
red, swollen, and warm to the touch
Who is at risk for shingles?
Shingles can occur in anyone
who has had chickenpox. However, certain factors put people at risk for
Risk factors include:
- being 60 or older
- having diseases that weaken the immune system, such
as HIV, AIDS, or cancer
- having had chemotherapy or radiation treatment
- taking drugs that weaken the immune system, such
as steroids or medications given after an organ transplant
Shingles in older adults
Shingles is particularly
prevalent in older adults and is most common in those who are between
60 and 80 years old, according to NIH Senior
Health. Of the 1 in 3 people who will get shingles in their lifetime, about
half of those will be in people 60 or older. Seniors are most likely to get
shingles, as their immune systems are more likely to be compromised.
Senior citizens with shingles
are more likely to experience complications than the general population,
including more extensive rashes and bacterial infections from open blisters.
They are also more susceptible to both pneumonia and brain inflammation, so
being seen by a doctor early on for anti-viral treatment is important.
To prevent shingles, adults
who are 60 years old and older should receive the shingles vaccine. To relieve
pain, you can apply a cool washcloth to the blisters. Keep the rash covered as
much as possible to avoiding spreading the varicella virus to others. Ask your
doctor if you’re a candidate for anti-viral medications, which can reduce the
length and intensity of the virus. You doctor can also prescribe pain
medications if necessary.
Shingles and pregnancy
While getting shingles during
pregnancy is unusual, it is possible. If you come into contact with someone who
has the chickenpox or an active shingles infection, you can develop chickenpox
if have not been vaccinated or if you have never had it before.
Depending on what trimester
you’re in, having chickenpox during pregnancy can result in birth defects. Getting
a chickenpox vaccine before pregnancy can be an important step in protecting
your child. Shingles is less likely to cause complications, but it can still be
unpleasant. See your doctor right away if you develop any rash during pregnancy.
Anti-viral medications used
to treat shingles can be used safely during a pregnancy. Antihistamines can
also help reduce itching, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can reduce pain.
Most cases of shingles can be
diagnosed with a physical examination of rashes and blisters. Your doctor will
also ask questions about your medical history.
In rare instances, your
doctor may need to test a sample of your skin or the fluid from your blisters.
This involves using a sterile swab to collect a sample of tissue or fluid.
Samples are then sent to a medical laboratory to confirm the presence of the
Treatments for shingles
There’s no cure for shingles,
but medication may be prescribed to ease symptoms and shorten the length of the
Medications prescribed are varied:
Home treatment can also help
ease your symptoms. Home treatments may include:
- applying cold, wet compresses to the rash to
reduce pain and itching
- applying calamine lotion to reduce itching
- taking colloidal oatmeal baths to ease pain and
Shingles typically clears up
within a few weeks and rarely recurs. If your symptoms haven’t lessened within 10
days, you should call your doctor for follow-up and re-evaluation.
While shingles can be painful
and bothersome on its own, it’s important to monitor symptoms for potential
complications. These complications include:
- eye damage, which can occur if you have a rash or blister too
close to your eye (the cornea is particularly susceptible)
- bacterial skin infections, which can easily occur from open
blisters and can be severe
- Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can occur if shingles affects the
nerves in your head and can result in partial facial paralysis or hearing loss
if left untreated (if treated early, most patients make a full recovery)
- brain or spinal cord inflammation, such as encephalitis or meningitis, which is serious and life-threatening
Vaccines can help keep you from
developing severe shingles symptoms or complications from shingles. All
children should receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine, also known as a
varicella immunization. Adults who’ve never had chickenpox should also get this
vaccine. The immunization doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t get
chickenpox, but it does prevent it in 9 out of 10 people who get the vaccine.
Adults who are 60 years old or
older should get a shingles vaccine, also known as the varicella-zoster
immunization. This vaccine helps to prevent severe symptoms and complications
associated with shingles.
Shingles is contagious. If
you become infected, certain steps must be taken to prevent the spread of the
- keeping your rash covered
- avoiding contact with people who haven’t had
chickenpox or who have weakened immune systems
- frequent handwashing