What Is Shingles?

Shingles (herpes zoster), caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), is a painful rash that can occur almost everywhere in your body. However, it mostly appears as a single stripe of blisters on either side of your waist. Sometimes, shingles can develop on the forehead or around one eye. The shingles-causing virus is the same that causes chickenpox. After you get infected with chickenpox, the virus remains inactive either in the spinal cord or the brain and can become active again (as shingles) after many years.

According to the CDC, about one in three people will develop shingles at one point in their life. Additionally, the US reports approximately one million cases of shingles every year. Is shingles painful? Shingles isn’t a life-threatening condition but can be extremely painful. However, some people experience mild symptoms such as itching or tingling. Others experience pain without developing a rash. The pain usually emanates from the nerves around the neck, chest, face, or back.

Symptoms of shingles

The classic symptom of shingles is pain, tingling, itching, and a burning sensation. The pain usually exhibits on one side of the body and occurs in small patches within one to five days before the rash appears. A fluid-filled red rash follows pain.

While pain and rash are the tell-tale symptoms of shingles, other signs may include:

  • Fever and headache
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stomach upset
  • Sensitivity to light

Other rare but severe symptoms of shingles include:

  • Rash on the eye that could result to temporal or permanent eye damage if not treated early
  • Bacterial infections on your skin, making it red, swollen, and tender to touch
  • Intense pain on the ears, loss of balance, or loss of hearing in case of ear infection
  • Dizziness or loss of taste on the tongue

Diagnosis of shingles

Before treatment, your doctor will have to diagnose you with shingles accurately. Why? Typically, shingles may mimic the symptoms of hives, scabies, and other skin diseases. For precise diagnosis, your doctor may utilize various diagnosis methods that include the below:

  • Viral culture: A sample of the blisters’ fluid is taken to establish the type of virus.
  • Antibody test: A blood sample is tested to confirm the presence of shingles-causing virus (VZV).
  • Skin biopsy: A section of the rash is taken and observed under a microscope.

Is shingles contagious?

Shingles isn’t contagious but can be passed to someone who hasn’t contracted chickenpox. And the intriguing thing is that you won’t give shingles, but chickenpox. People who haven’t been vaccinated against chickenpox or haven’t been infected with chickenpox can contract the virus if they get into direct contact with open sores. That said, it’s vital to keep your sores covered, especially when around infants or persons with weakened immunity.

It’s essential to note that shingles can’t be spread through sneezing, coughing, sharing utensils, or sneezing. The virus can only be passed if the other person comes into contact with the blisters’ fluid. Additionally, transmission can only occur when the blisters first appear, to the time they dry up and crust over. The spread of the virus can’t happen before the blisters develop or after the crusts form. Simply put, if the blisters don’t develop, you can’t spread the virus.

Beyond covering the blisters, observe the below handy tips to contain the spread of shingles:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Deter from touching or irritating the rash
  • Avoid contact with vulnerable persons

Risk factors

While anyone without chickenpox vaccination is at risk of contracting shingles, other risk factors that may increase the likelihood of you developing shingles include:

  • Age: The risk increases with age. People with 50 years or more are likely to contract shingles. Additionally, infants with low body weight are at risk of shingles.
  • Underlying conditions: People with immune weakening diseases like cancer or HIV/AIDS stand a higher risk of developing shingles.
  • Certain medications and medical procedures: Drugs that induce your body not to reject a transplanted organ can increase your risk of developing shingles. Similarly, prolonged use of steroids like prednisone can increase your risk of shingles.

Furthermore, radiation and chemotherapy may suppress your immunity, increasing the risk of shingles.

How is shingles treated?

Although there is no defined treatment for shingles, antiviral medications can halt the attack. Medications help fight the pangs of shingles in the following ways:

  • Curtailing the duration of the symptoms
  • Deterring the rash from developing again
  • Alleviating complications

Doctors recommend prompt treatment of shingles as soon as one starts experiencing the symptoms to avoid worsening of the symptoms.

Other tips for managing symptoms include:

  • Taking pain-relieving medications
  • Undertaking stress-relieving activities like yoga, taking a walk, and reading
  • Eating healthy meals rich in vitamins A, B-12, C, and E to boost your immunity
  • Taking part in light exercises
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothes to avoid irritating the rash

To relieve the effects of shingles itching, CDC recommends soothing and effective shingles cream. Additionally, you can consider a lukewarm, oatmeal bath, and placing a cool, wet cloth on the blisters to clean and soothe your shingles infected skin.

How long does shingles last?

Typically, most people recover from shingles within three to five weeks. While some people may be left with a few scars, the majority make a full recovery without leaving any scars.

Can shingles become chronic? Even though it’s rare, the pain of shingles may linger for some people for months or even years after the rash’s healing. The pain resulting from damaged nerves under the skin is referred to as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Other people experience chronic itch in the area the rush had developed. In extreme cases, chronic pain may lead to weight loss and depression.

Preventing shingles

Since the risk of contracting shingles increases as you age, it’s recommended you get a shingles vaccine every five years if you are 50 years and above. Even though the vaccine won’t shield you 100 percent from shingles, it will reduce the chances of you getting the virus by 90 percent. Beyond the vaccine, protect yourself from shingles by avoiding contact with persons suffering from shingles.

Bottom line

While shingles isn’t a life-threatening condition, you must seek medical attention at the earliest time you notice symptoms. This way, you will deter any complications that may emanate from untreated shingles. Again, early treatment prevents or reduces scarring.