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Shingles is a painful skin rash. It's caused by the varicella zoster virus. Shingles usually appears in a band, a strip, or a small area on one side of the face or body. It's also called herpes zoster.
Shingles is most common in older adults and people who have weak immune systems because of stress, injury, certain medicines, or other reasons. Most people who get shingles will get better and won't get it again. But it's possible to get shingles more than once.
Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox becomes active again in your body. After you've had chickenpox, the virus "sleeps" (is dormant) in your nerve roots. In some people, the virus "wakes up" when disease, stress, or aging weakens the immune system. Some medicines may trigger the virus.
Shingles symptoms happen in stages. First you may have a headache, sensitivity to light, and influenza (flu)-like symptoms. Later you may feel tingling or pain in an area on your body where a rash may occur a few days later. The rash then turns into blisters.
Doctors can usually diagnose shingles when they see an area of rash on the left or right side of your body. If the diagnosis isn't clear, your doctor may order tests on cells from a blister. If your doctor thinks that you have shingles, your doctor may not wait for tests before treating you.
Shingles is treated with medicines. These medicines include antiviral medicines and medicines for pain. Treatment may shorten the illness and prevent other problems caused by shingles.
See your doctor right away if you think you may have shingles. Starting antiviral medicine right away can help your rash heal faster and be less painful. And you may need prescription pain medicine if your case of shingles is very painful. It's important to see your doctor right away if you have shingles near your eye or nose. Treatment can help prevent lasting eye damage.
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Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox becomes active again in your body.
After you've had chickenpox, the virus "sleeps" (is dormant) in your nerve roots. In some people, it stays dormant forever. In others, the virus "wakes up." In this case, you may get a rash that occurs only in the area of the affected nerve.
The virus can become active again when disease, stress, or aging weakens the immune system. Some medicines may trigger the virus. It's not clear why this happens.
After the virus becomes active again, it can cause only shingles, not chickenpox. Anyone who has had even a mild case of chickenpox can get shingles. This includes children.
You can't catch shingles from someone who has shingles. But if you haven't had chickenpox or haven't gotten the chickenpox vaccine, you can get chickenpox if you come into contact with the fluid in the shingles blisters.
Things that increase your risk for getting shingles include:
A shingles vaccine helps prevent shingles. It is recommended for adults age 50 and older and for adults 18 and older who have a weakened immune system.
If you have shingles, avoid close contact with people until after the rash blisters heal. It's most important to avoid contact with people who are at special risk from chickenpox. This includes infants, people who are pregnant, and anyone who has never had chickenpox, is ill, or has a weak immune system. Also cover any fluid-filled blisters that are on a part of your body that isn't covered with clothes. Choose a type of bandage that absorbs fluid and protects the sores.
Shingles symptoms happen in stages. At first you may have a headache or be sensitive to light. You may also have influenza (flu)-like symptoms without a fever.
Later you may feel itching, tingling, or pain in a certain area. That's where a small area of rash may occur a few days later. It can appear anywhere on the body, but on only the left or the right side of the body. Piercing pain may occur along with the skin rash.
The rash turns into clusters of blisters. The blisters fill with fluid and then crust over. It takes 2 to 4 weeks for the blisters to heal, and they may leave scars. Some people get no rash at all.
Sometimes post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) develops. Symptoms can include pain or sensitivity to touch. PHN may last for months or years.
Some people will have other problems from shingles. These can include:
Delaying or not getting medical treatment may increase your risk for problems.
Call your doctor now if you:
If you still feel intense pain for more than 1 month after the skin heals, see your doctor to find out if you have PHN. Getting your pain under control right away may prevent nerve damage that may cause pain that lasts for months or years.
Shingles is treated with medicines. There's no cure for shingles. But treatment can help your rash heal faster and be less painful. It may shorten the length of illness and prevent other problems. See your doctor right away if you think you may have shingles. This is very important if you have it near your eye or nose.
The most common treatments for shingles include:
Your doctor probably will start treatment with antiviral medicines. If you start taking medicines within the first 3 days of seeing the shingles rash, you have a lower chance of having later problems, such as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). Early treatment can also reduce how long your symptoms last and how severe they are. It also can prevent lasting eye damage.
If you have pain that lasts longer than 3 months after your shingles rash heals, your doctor may diagnose post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). Treatment to reduce pain from PHN includes:
In some cases, shingles causes long-term problems. Treatment depends on what the problem is.
Adaptation Date: 5/18/2023
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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