Shingles is an outbreak of rashes and blisters on the skin, caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once an individual has had chickenpox, the virus stays in the body in an inactive state. Years later, the virus can become active, causing shingles. The first symptoms of shingles are unusual skin sensations. These include pain, itching and tingling. Other symptoms include confusion, fatigue, fever, headache, memory loss, an upset stomach and stomach pain.
These symptoms generally occur one to five days before a painful rash appears on one side of the body or face. In most people, the rash develops on the torso and extends to the front and the back of the body. The rash forms very painful blisters that typically become scabs in seven to 10 days. Most cases of shingles clear up within two to four weeks.
A few facts about shingles:
- One-third of the population is at risk for developing shingles.
- Shingles is not only an adult disease. Children can also develop shingles.
- About half of cases occur in individuals 60 years and older.
- Individuals with certain cancers, a weakened immune system or organ transplants are at a greater risk for getting shingles.
- Individuals with a family history of shingles are at a higher risk for getting shingles.
Is shingles contagious?
Shingles is highly contagious. The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the blisters. The virus cannot be transmitted to others by sneezing, coughing or casual contact.
How to prevent the transmission of shingles to others:
- If you have shingles, keep the rash covered.
- Do not touch or scratch the rash. Frequent hand-washing helps prevent the spread of the virus.
- Until your rash or blisters have developed scabs, avoid contact with pregnant women who never had chickenpox. Also, avoid contact with premature babies and individuals with weakened immune systems.
- A person with a shingles rash can pass the virus to someone who never had chickenpox. When this occurs, the virus causes the individual to have chickenpox and not shingles.
Phases of shingles
Phase one is characterized by unusual skin sensations and other symptoms. Phase two is marked by the presence of a rash and blisters. Blisters eventually rupture, releasing the virus. These eruptions occur for approximately three to five days. Patients are infectious until the lesions are dried. Phase three consists of pain or other complications after the lesions have healed. Some people continue to experience pain for months or even years after recovering from shingles.
How is shingles treated?
There is no cure for shingles – treatment focuses on the relief of symptoms. Three medicines have been approved to treat shingles. These medicines help reduce the duration and severity of the illness. Your doctor will select one of the medicines based on your medical condition. To be effective, the medicine must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears. Ideally, treatment should begin within 96 hours of exposure to shingles.
If you think you might have shingles, call your doctor immediately to discuss treatment options. Your doctor may also prescribe medication for pain. Several medications developed for other conditions also help reduce pain. For example, a drug approved for patients with seizures reduces shingles pain by 50 percent. Wet compresses, calamine lotion and oatmeal baths help relieve some of the itching.
Shingles can lead to several complications:
- Elderly people have the greatest risk for complications.
- Twenty percent of patients experience pain following shingles.
- Ten percent of patients with shingles experience pain lasting more than three months.
- The rash may become infected. Antibiotics are used to treat infections.
- Skin color may change. White patches may appear where the rash and blisters first appeared.
- A facial nerve may become infected. Symptoms include earache, deafness, dizziness and paralysis of the face.
- Ulcers and scarring may occur on the surface of the eye.
- The brain may become inflamed.
- People who have shingles are more likely to have a stroke.
[Read: How to Prevent a Stroke.]
Should I be vaccinated against shingles?
A vaccine to prevent shingles has been available since 1995. Getting vaccinated is the only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles. It also reduces the pain that can follow shingles. A person can be vaccinated at any age. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends vaccination for people 50 years or older. A person who is vaccinated may still develop shingles, but the severity and complications are reduced. Vaccination reduces the risk of getting shingles by 51 percent. It also reduces the risk of long-term pain by 67 percent.
Research suggests that the vaccine is effective for at least six years, and the vaccine is generally safe and well tolerated.
Common side effects of the vaccine include redness, soreness, swelling or itching at the needle site. Affected individuals can get vaccinated within the first few days after the rash appears. The shingles vaccination includes live viruses, and it is not recommended for all people. Individuals should not get vaccinated if they are on certain medications, have a weakened immune system, have certain cancers or have transplanted organs. Prior to getting vaccinated, ask your doctor if you have a condition that may prevent you from getting vaccinated. Some people who get the shingles vaccine may develop a rash near the place where they were vaccinated. As a precaution, the rash should be covered until it disappears.
[Read: Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine.]
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) provides easy-to-read information about shingles.