What is shingles?
Shingles is an itchy, painful rash that usually occurs on one side of your body and/or face. Approximately one in every three people will get shingles in their lifetime. Shingles is contagious to people who have not had chickenpox and have not been vaccinated for the chickenpox virus.
Shingles blisters usually scab over in seven to 10 days, at which point they are no longer contagious. Shingles will usually clear up in two to four weeks. It’s a good idea to keep shingles blisters covered until they are completely healed because it is possible to transmit the virus through fluid from the rash.
People who get infected by a person with shingles will get chickenpox, not shingles, but may get shingles later.
The varicella zoster virus first causes chickenpox. Then, it stays dormant in the body in nerve cells. For unknown reasons, the virus can later become reactivated as shingles.
The main symptoms of shingles include:
- A rash on the skin
- Red blisters filled with fluid
- Stabbing or shooting pain
- Itching and redness
- Upset stomach or nausea
To avoid passing the virus to others, cover the rash and avoid touching it. Wash your hands often. Avoid people with weakened immune systems and people who are pregnant until your rash has healed.
Diagnosis for shingles
A licensed health care professional can diagnose whether you have shingles by examining you and asking about your medical history. Other skin conditions — such as impetigo (a bacterial infection), insect bites, and contact dermatitis (another type of rash) — can also resemble shingles.
Doctors do not often test for shingles, but they might if it could cause complications, such as when you have a weakened immune system, for example.
Treatments for shingles
If you do get shingles, there are options for medications as well as at-home care to help address symptoms.
Your doctor will likely administer an antiviral medication if you get shingles. These work best if you take them within three days of the start of the rash. They include:
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects associated with these medications.
Painkillers that could help reduce pain from shingles inflammation include:
Treatments to help ease the itchy, painful symptoms at home include:
- Resisting the urge to scratch or pick at the blisters
- Wet compress
- Calamine lotion
- Oatmeal bath
Some alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, may help ease shingles symptoms. One recent study looked at treating pain that lasts past the outbreak, called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), with acupuncture and found that it might be effective in relieving pain for people with PHN. Make sure you visit a professional.
Manuka and clover honey have antiviral properties that may help when applied to the rash. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can help relieve pain by delivering a small electrical current through electrodes attached to the skin.
Stress can exacerbate a shingles outbreak, so try to find ways to stay mellow, including talking with a therapist.
Complications of shingles treatment
Shingles can cause vision loss if it affects the eye, or hearing loss if it affects the ear. It can also cause facial paralysis, called Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Another possible complication is pain that lasts past the outbreak.
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American Family Physician: "Management of Herpes Zoster (Shingles) and Postherpetic Neuralgia."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Signs & Symptoms."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Transmission."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Treating Shingles."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Vaccination."
Harvard Health: "Shingles: What triggers this painful, burning rash?"
Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry: “Ramsay Hunt syndrome.”
Medicine: "Acupuncture for postherpetic neuralgia."
National Institute on Aging: "5 Things You Need to Know About Shingles."
NEJM Journal Watch: “Common Questions About the Shingles Vaccine — Answered Here!”
The New York Times: "Is Shingles Contagious?"
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