Shingles is a contagious virus (varicella zoster) that results in a painful rash. The virus that causes the rash is one of nine known herpes viruses to infect humans. It is the same virus that causes chickenpox.
After having chickenpox, typically as a child, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue underneath the skin. Many years later it can reactivate. The cause for the virus’ reactivation is not yet known. When the virus leaves its dormant state, it results in shingles.
Shingles can be spread from one person to another by touch, so it spreads quickly and easily. For people who have not been infected yet, it develops into chicken pox, while those who have already had it and become infected again will contract shingles.
Shingles is most common in the elderly and people who are immunocompromised. Typically, people can only get shingles once, just as most people only get chicken pox once. Elderly people who have other chronic health issues, such as diabetes, are at a higher risk for complications due to shingles.
Shingles first appears as a painful rash, typically on one side of the face or body. In some cases, the rash may be more widespread, making it appear more like chickenpox. The blisters typically scab over in 7 to 10 days, fully healing within 2 to 4 weeks. Other symptoms can include fever, headache, chills, or upset stomach.
At the first sign of shingles, patients should immediately see their doctor. This virus can be treated with antiviral medicine, as well as pain medication and topical skin-numbing agents. Some doctors may also recommend home remedies to ease pain, such as cold compresses, oatmeal baths or calamine lotion.
About 10 to 18 percent of people who contract shingles will experience postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a long-term nerve pain complication that comes as a result of the virus. This results in pain in areas where the rash was that can last for months or even years. Older patients are more likely to develop PHN and have longer and more severe pain.
Doctors recommend most patients ages 50 and older get the Shingrix vaccine, a two-dose series vaccine that is more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles and PHN.
If you have any questions about shingles, the doctors at Lakeside Dermatology can help.