What is shingles?
Shingles (herpes zoster) is a viral infection that causes an outbreak of a painful rash or blisters on the skin. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. The rash most often appears as a band of rashes or blisters in one area of the body.
Where does shingles come from?
When you have chickenpox as a child, your body fights off the varicella-zoster virus and the physical signs of chickenpox fade away but the virus always remains in your body. In adulthood, sometimes the virus becomes active again. This time, the varicella-zoster virus makes its second appearance in the form of shingles.
How common is shingles?
About one out of every three people in the United States who have had chickenpox will get shingles. More than one million cases of shingles are diagnosed every year. The risk of shingles increases as you get older, with about half the cases occurring in men and women ages 50 and older.
Who is at risk for getting shingles?
People who have had chickenpox who are more likely to develop shingles include:
- People with a weakened immune system (such as people with cancer, HIV, organ transplant recipients or those receiving cancer chemotherapy).
- People over the age of 50.
- People who have been ill.
- People who have experienced trauma.
- People who are under stress.
Can you get shingles more than once?
Unfortunately, yes you can. One of the biggest myths about shingles is that it can only happen once. This is not true. You can have more than one episode. If you get shingles again, you usually don’t get the rash in the same place.
What causes shingles?
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Early symptoms of shingles may include:
- Feeling tired.
- Sensitivity to light.
- Stomach upset.
Other signs and symptoms appearing a few days after the early symptoms include:
- An itching, tingling or burning feeling in an area of skin.
- Redness in the skin in the affected area.
- Raised rash in a small area of skin.
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open then scab over.
- Mild to severe pain in the area of skin affected.
How long does shingles last?
From the time you begin to feel symptoms until the rash has totally disappeared can take three to five weeks.
- First, a few days before the rash appears, you may feel pain in an area on your skin. The pain is described as itching, burning, stabbing, or shooting.
- Next, the raised rash appears as a band or a patch, usually on one side of the body. The rash usually appears around the waistline or on one side of the face, neck, or on the trunk (chest/abdomen/back), but can occur in other areas including the arms and legs.
- Within three to four days, the rash develops into red, fluid-filled, round, painful, open blisters.
- Usually, these blisters begin to dry out and crust over within about 10 days.
- The scabs clear up about two to three weeks later.
Do you always get the typical rash if you have shingles?
Occasionally some patients don’t get the rash. If you have any of the other symptoms of shingles (even without a rash), see your healthcare provider sooner rather than later. There are effective treatments that can be given early in the disease. If it turns out you don’t have shingles, seeing your healthcare provider allows any condition that you do have to be discovered and treated early in its course.
The shingles rash appears on the abdomen and face, neck and shoulders.
Why does shingles appear mostly on one side or in one area of the body?
The virus travels in specific nerves, so you will often see shingles occur in a band on one side of the body. This band corresponds to the area where the nerve transmits signals. The shingles rash stays somewhat localized to an area; it does not spread over your whole body.
Is shingles contagious? How is the shingles virus spread? How long is a person contagious?
Someone with shingles can’t spread shingles to another person, but they can spread chickenpox. The varicella-zoster virus is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with the fluid that oozes from the blisters (rarely, by breathing in airborne varicella-zoster virus). If your rash is in the blister phase, stay away from those who haven’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine and keep your rash covered.
A person with shingles remains contagious until the rash is dried and crusted over. The varicella-zoster virus can only cause chickenpox in someone who has never had chickenpox or hasn’t been vaccinated against chickenpox.