Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it most often appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or the right side of your torso.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you've had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
While it isn't a life-threatening condition, shingles can be very painful. Vaccines can help reduce the risk of shingles, while early treatment can help shorten a shingles infection and lessen the chance of complications.
The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body. These signs and symptoms may include:
Some people also experience:
Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some, it can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, it can sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs or kidneys. Some people experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash.
Most commonly, the shingles rash develops as a stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso. Sometimes the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
When to see a doctor
Shingles is characterized by pain or a tingling sensation in a limited area on one side of the face or torso, followed by a red rash with small, fluid-filled blisters. ...
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who's had chickenpox may develop shingles. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus can enter your nervous system and lie dormant for years. Eventually, it may reactivate and travel along nerve pathways to your skin — producing shingles.
The reason for the encore is unclear. But it may be due to lowered immunity to infections as you grow older. Shingles is more common in older adults and in people who have weak immune systems.
Varicella-zoster is part of a group of viruses called herpes viruses, which includes the viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes. Because of this, shingles is also known as herpes zoster. But the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles is not the same virus responsible for cold sores or genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection.
Are you contagious?
Chickenpox can be dangerous for some groups of people. Until your shingles blisters scab over, you are contagious and should avoid physical contact with:
Shingles affects the nerves
The shingles rash is associated with an inflammation of nerves beneath the skin. ...
Anyone who has ever had chickenpox can develop shingles. Most adults in the United States had chickenpox when they were children, before the advent of the routine childhood vaccination that now protects against chickenpox.
Factors that may increase your risk of developing shingles include:
Complications from shingles can include:
Preparing for your appointment
Some people have such mild symptoms of shingles that they don't seek medical treatment. At the other extreme, severe symptoms may result in a visit to the emergency room.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your limited time with your doctor. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For shingles, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions any time you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Shingles is usually diagnosed based on the history of pain on one side of your body, along with the telltale rash and blisters. Your doctor may also take a tissue scraping or culture of the blisters for examination in the laboratory.
Treatments and drugs
There's no cure for shingles, but prompt treatment with prescription antiviral drugs can speed healing and reduce your risk of complications. These medications include:
Shingles can cause severe pain, so your doctor may prescribe:
Lifestyle and home remedies
Taking a cool bath or using cool, wet compresses on your blisters may help relieve the itching and pain.
Two vaccines may help prevent shingles — the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine and the shingles (varicella-zoster) vaccine.
The shingles vaccine is used only as a prevention strategy, however. It's not intended to treat people who currently have the disease. The vaccine contains live virus and should not be given to people who have weakened immune systems.
Last Updated: 2011-09-01
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