Shingles is a name for a painful skin rash caused by the herpes (varicella-zoster) virus-the same one that causes chickenpox. However, unlike chickenpox, you can have shingles more than once, twice or three times.
Shingles is an infection of nerves and the area of skin around it caused by herpes zoster. At its very worst it can cause permanent eye damage, deafness, encephalitis, blood infections and loss of facial muscles.
With chickenpox comes the risk
If you had chickenpox as a child, you still have the dormant virus living in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. If that virus becomes active again, you will develop shingles. No one knows exactly why shingles can reoccur.
Although shingles can develop in anyone, you're more likely to develop shingles if you are older than 60, have an immune system weakened by disease or some medications, or if you are receiving radiation, chemotherapy, or have a history of lymphatic cancer.
Get treated early to avoid complications
Some people have shingles without developing the rash, so it is sometimes misdiagnosed. Symptoms usually begin as a narrow burning and tingling on one side of the back, but it can extend around to the stomach and chest area or occur on your extremities, face and neck area.
Soon red patches develop at the area of the affected nerve, usually with fluid-filled blisters that dry and crust, just like chickenpox. It takes two to three weeks for the crusts to fall off. Other symptoms may include:
To prevent permanent damage, it's important to seek medical attention as soon as you notice symptoms, especially if you have a weakened immune system. Your physician may prescribe high doses of an antiviral to help fight the virus and shorten the onset. Strong anti-inflammatory medicines can help with swelling and pain.
Over-the-counter medications to use include antihistamines to reduce itching and pain medications and creams containing capsaicin to reduce the risk of lingering pain. Calamine lotion, oatmeal baths and lotions can be helpful for itching. Cool compresses can be soothing for the burning sensation.
A person with shingles can pass the virus to anyone who hasn't had chickenpox, so it's important to avoid physical contact with anyone who has a weak immune system, newborns and pregnant women. Once your blisters have crusted over, you are no longer contagious. A person exposed to shingles will contract chickenpox, not shingles.
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of a varicella-zoster vaccine called ZostavaxR for adults 50 and older to reduce the complications of shingles and possible protection from a second attack. A study reported in a 2011 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association that there was an indication that people of all ages who had gotten the shingles vaccine were half as likely to get shingles.