Shingles, or commonly known as herpes zoster, occur when the dormant chickenpox virus is reactivated in your nerve tissues.
Shingles usually cause a rash or blisters on the skin, and only people who’ve had chickenpox can develop shingles.
The virus is inactive in nerve cells but can be triggered later in life and cause shingles.
In addition to blisters and rash, you also might experience symptoms like itching, burning, and deep pain.
People in later years, especially in the 60s and 70s, usually get a vaccination to protect themselves against shingles.
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What are the shingles symptoms?
There are early symptoms, and then there are later symptoms.
Early symptoms may include fever and general weakness, and you will feel some areas of your skin are burning, itching, and notice a tingling sensation.
After few days, the later symptoms appear.
They include the following.
Rash and blisters
After few days of the initial symptoms, the first signs of rash appear.
You will notice pink and red blotchy patches on one side of your body.
Some people report pain in the area of the rash.
The rash quickly develops fluid-filled blisters, similar to those of chickenpox.
Itching accompanies the rash, and new blisters continue to develop for several days.
Blisters are usually localized in one area, and they do not spread over your entire body.
Common areas where blisters appear include the face and the torso, but they can also appear elsewhere.
In some rare cases, blisters appear on the lower part of the body.
Scabbing and crusting
In some cases, the blisters will erupt and ooze, and then turn slightly yellow and begin to flatten.
As the blisters dry out, scabs begin to form.
Each blister can take up to two weeks to completely crust over.
During the scabbing and crusting stage, the pain might ease a little.
However, in some cases, the pain continues for months or years.
The virus can no longer be spread once all blisters have completely crusted over.
Pain and bruised feeling
As we mentioned previously, pain always accompanies rash and blisters as part of the symptoms.
The good news is that pain is localized on just one side of your face or body.
In some cases, shingles appear around the rib cage or wrist. In that case, symptoms look like a belt or a half belt.
Some healthcare experts even refer to it as a “shingles band and shingles girdle”.
The so-called belt can cover a wide area on one side of your midsection.
Because of the location, shingles can make tight clothing particularly uncomfortable.
Similar as chickenpox, shingles can also cause fever, followed by chills and headache.
It is expected to feel bad and unwell for several days before the rash appears.
Once the rash appears, the fever might be gone.
As mentioned previously, you will feel pain once the rash and blisters appear on your body.
We also know there are different types of pain.
In the case of shingles, the pain is burning, searing, stabbing, or aching, and can occur once in a while or last for a long time.
There are different types of shingles, and these affect the nerves that control facial sensation and movement in the face.
In this case, the rash appears around your eyes and over the forehead and nose.
In most cases, as part of the ophthalmic shingles, you will feel a headache, accompanied by swelling of the eye, inflammation in the iris, and drooping eyelid.
Open sores of any kind are susceptible to bacterial infection.
And since shingles are basically rash and blisters, you can expect some open sores.
The best way to avoid secondary infection is to keep the area clean and avoid scratching.
If you have weakened immune system, a secondary infection is usually a guarantee.
Severe infection can lead to permanent scarring of the skin.
Make sure to report signs of infection to your physician immediately.
If you notice it early, treatment can prevent the infection from spreading.
Diagnose and treatment
As mentioned previously, doctors have yet to identify a clear trigger for shingles virus.
We talked about the risks of lowered immunity and old age, but exactly how are shingles diagnosed?
A physician can diagnose shingles based on the symptoms you manifest, an examination of the rash and blisters, and your own medical history.
Blisters tend to appear on one side of the body, and a swab from the blister or skin scraping can be used for laboratory tests.
Once a physician clearly identifies shingles, the healing and treatment process begins.
The process can last between two and four weeks.
However, some people are left with minor scars. In most cases, patients make a full and complete recovery with no visible scarring.
It is well-known saying that once you get shingles, you cannot get them again.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the infection can return multiple times.
Are shingles contagious?
For your own personal safety and health, and for others, you should visit a physician if you suspect shingles and the pain and rash occur near the eye, you are 60 or older, and someone in the family has a weakened immune system.
It is worth noting that a person with the shingles infection can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox.
Therefore, you should check with a physician and start your treatment as soon as possible, before you pass to other people.
The virus can pass through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash.
Once infected, a person will develop chickenpox, not shingles.
Complications that can occur
One of the reasons why physicians recommend quick and immediate response is because in some cases, shingles can complicate things.
Here are the complications that might occur due to shingles:
- Postherpetic neuralgia, a pain that continues long after the blisters have cleared. The condition occurs due to damaged nerve fibers
- Vision loss when shingles appear in or around an eye
- Neurological problems, depending on the nerves that are affected. In some cases, shingles can cause inflammation of the brain, facial paralysis, or even hearing and balance problems
- If blisters are not properly treated, you can expect bacterial skin infections to develop
Prevention of shingles
The good news is that there are two vaccines that may help prevent shingles.
The first one is chickenpox vaccine, one that is part of the routine childhood immunization to prevent chickenpox.
Adults who have never had chickenpox can also take the vaccine to prevent shingles.
The vaccine will not 100% guarantee you won’t get chickenpox or shingles, but it will vastly reduce the risk and chances of complication.
The second is the shingles vaccine, approved by the FDA for use for adults over the age of 50 and older.
No matter whether they had shingles or not, you can take the vaccine.
The FDA recommends it for people over 50, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you wait until you reach 60 years or older, when the risk of shingles is higher.
If you belong in some of the risk groups, your physician might prescribe the vaccine in the age between 50 and 59.
Same as with the chickenpox vaccine, the shingles vaccine will not guarantee you 100% prevention.
However, the vaccine will reduce the course and severity of the disease, as well as the risk of postherpetic neuralgia.
So far, scientists and healthcare experts have yet to find out the exact reason why the virus is reactivated in some people, but not in others.
However, they’ve listed a couple of risk factors.
- Being under a lot of stress
- Having a weakened immune system
- Suffering trauma
- Having other illnesses
- Being over 50 years old
- Undergoing cancer treatment (radiation and chemo lower resistance)
- Taking certain medications, especially drugs designated to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, and steroids