What Is Shingles?
Shingles is a painful infection of the nerves and the skin around those nerves. It's caused by the reactivation of the herpes zoster varicella virus, the virus that causes chicken pox. Long after a person has had and recovered from chicken pox, the virus can remain dormant in the system. When it's reactivated, it presents itself as shingles. People with compromised immune systems also often get shingles.
Is Shingles Common?
An estimated 1 million cases of shingles occur in the United States every year. Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles, although it most often affects people over the age of 40. There is a progressive increase in people aged 50 to 60. But it can develop in anyone, even children. One out of two people who live to 85 will get a case of shingles.
How Painful Is Shingles?
Most people report extreme pain and an intense, burning, tingling sensation. Sometimes there are stabbing pains. The affected area will nearly always be tender, and the pain is continuous, without letup, during the course of shingles. Sometimes there can be pain near the eyes, and serious complications can threaten eyesight.
Are There Other Symptoms of Shingles?
Symptoms most associated with shingles are bumps or rashes, which appear like strips around the waist and upper body where the nerves are inflamed. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms follow this course:
Two to three days after the pain begins, small bumps and strips of inflamed patches across the back, around the waist, and sometimes near the eyes will appear.
Three to five days later the bumps become fluid-filled blisters that look like chicken pox.
Two to three weeks later the blisters fill with pus, break open, and crust over.
At four to five weeks, the crusts fall off, the pain and itching stop, and the blisters heal without leaving scars. However, for some people the pain continues long after the blisters have cleared, due to a complication called postherpetic neuralgia.
Is Shingles Contagious?
Shingles cannot be transmitted, but anyone with shingles can -- in the early stages before blisters crust over -- transmit the virus that causes chicken pox.
How Can I Prevent Transmission of Shingles?
Keep the rash covered with nonstick bandages.
Do not touch or scratch the rash.
Wash your hands often to prevent the spread of the virus.
Avoid contact with pregnant women, infants, and people whose immune systems are compromised by other diseases.
Does Medication Help With Shingles?
Antiviral medicines such as acyclovir often help shorten the length and severity of shingles. Antiviral meds must be started as soon as possible to be effective, so if you think you or someone you love has shingles, call your doctor.
Are There Any Home Treatments for Shingles?
The itching and pain can sometimes be reduced with wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths. Over-the-counter pain medicine may help, too, but check with a doctor who can refer to your entire health history before you take these.
Are There Any Complications With Shingles?
The most common complication of shingles is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with PHN have severe pain in the areas where they had the shingles rash, even after the rash clears up. PHN can last weeks, months, or even years. PHN occurs in up to half (and possibly more) of untreated people who are 60 years of age and older.
Is There a Way to Prevent Shingles?
There are two vaccines that can help prevent shingles: the varicella (chicken pox) vaccine and the varicella-zoster (shingles) vaccine.
Chicken pox vaccine:
Routinely given to children aged 12 to 18 months, the chicken pox vaccine is now also recommended for adults and older children who have never had chicken pox. It doesn't provide 100 percent immunity, but it does considerably reduce the risk of complications and the severity of the disease.
Experts recommend this vaccine be given to everyone over 50, whether or not they've had shingles before. So get vaccinated! There are exceptions regarding who should get the vaccine, including people with immunosuppressive diseases, so again, make sure your doctor is aware of any other health conditions.
Joseph Jorizzo, professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, says he has seen a decrease in cases since the vaccines have become widely available. "Still," says Jorizzo, "shingles is not going away."