Shingles is a painful rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It usually appears as a band or strip of blisters on one side of the body that goes from the spine around the front to the breastbone. However, shingles can occur virtually anywhere on the body, including the neck, nose and forehead.
Shingles derives from the same virus that causes chicken pox. After having chicken pox, the varicella zoster virus lies dormant in nerve tissue. Years later, and without an obvious cause, it can reactivate and cause shingles. Shingles is contagious and can be transmitted from one person to another, causing chicken pox in those who have not already had it. Shingles appears most frequently among older adults (age 60+) and in people with compromised immune systems. Generally, a person only gets shingles once; it rarely recurs.
Symptoms for shingles include:
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling on one side of the body. The pain often precedes any other symptoms.
- A rash that appears a few days after the pain. It may be itchy.
- Blisters that break open and then crust over.
- Fever, achiness or headache.
Some people never get a rash or blisters with shingles, but simply experience the pain.
Shingles is diagnosed based on a medical history and physical examination of the characteristic rash. If you suspect you may have shingles, it is important to contact your doctor as quickly as possible. Early treatment can reduce the pain and severity of the episode. Two types of medications are prescribed to treat shingles:
- Antiviral drugs to combat the virus, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir.
- Pain medicines, from oral pain pills and antidepressants to anticonvulsants and topical preparations that contain skin-numbing agents.
Shingles usually heals in about 2 to 3 weeks without any problem. However, there is a small percentage of patients (10% to 15%), predominantly over age 50, who experience pain that lasts beyond one month after the healing period. This is called postherpetic neuralgia. Catching shingles early and beginning treatment can reduce the likelihood and severity of postherpetic neuralgia.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a vaccine, called Zostavax, for the prevention of adult shingles. It is approved for adults age 60 or older who have had chicken pox. Essentially, the vaccine delivers a booster dose of chicken pox in order to decrease the risk of developing shingles. The vaccine has proven to be very effective in reducing the incidence of shingles as well as postherpetic neuralgia.