What are shingles?

Shingles is known as herpes zoster and it is a skin disease caused by a varicella-zoster virus. There is no age limit for shingles.
Shingles is known as herpes zoster and it is a skin disease caused by a varicella-zoster virus. There is no age limit for shingles.

There is no age limit for shingles. However, you're more likely to develop shingles as an adult if you had chickenpox as a child. The virus that causes it remains dormant in your body even after recovering from chickenpox. If the virus is activated by factors such as age or a compromised immune system, it can cause shingles.     

Shingles is also known as herpes zoster. It’s a skin disease caused by a varicella-zoster virus. This viral infection causes a painful rash or blisters to appear in one area of your body. The virus is also responsible for chickenpox. 

Shingles occur in approximately 10% of people who have had chickenpox at some point in their lives. Unlike chickenpox, you can get shingles more than once. If you get shingles more than once, you may notice that the rashes don’t appear in the same place.

Main symptoms of shingles

The first sign of shingles you may notice is a burning, tingling feeling on one side of your body. Then a rash may appear in the same area afterward.

You may also notice red patches on the skin, fluid-filled blisters, a raised rash, fever and chills, stomach ache, light sensitivity, headache, and exhaustion.

If shingles affect a nerve in your face, you may also experience:

  • Difficulty moving your facial muscles
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of eye movement or visual difficulties
  • Difficulty tasting
  • Ptosis (drooping eyelid)

The signs and symptoms associated with shingles will usually take three to five weeks to disappear completely. For some people, symptoms appear without rashes. If you suspect you have shingles symptoms, consider talking to your doctor.

Main causes of shingles

It is not clear what makes the varicella-zoster virus suddenly activate. Because the virus remains in the spinal nerve root after recovery from chickenpox, most researchers believe stress could trigger it.

You're most likely to get shingles if: 

  • You’re above 60 years old.
  • You contracted chickenpox before the age of one.
  • You have a weak immune system due to underlying conditions like cancer and AIDS
  • You are under medication like chemotherapy.  
  • If you’ve gone through trauma
  • If you are stressed.

Is shingles contagious?

Shingles is not considered to be contagious. However, the varicella-zoster virus can be spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has never had chickenpox before. The newly infected will then experience chickenpox, not shingles. Coming into contact with fluid from a shingles blister can spread the virus. Only fully healed, dry blisters are reliably non-infectious.

If you still have a fresh shingles blister, try not to come in social contact with:

  • Children under 12 months old
  • Individuals who have never had chickenpox
  • Pregnant women
  • Individuals with chronic conditions like cancer or AIDS

Diagnosis and treatment of shingles

The most common way to diagnose shingles is to check how the rash has spread on your body. The rash mostly appears on one side of your body. Your doctor may also take a sample of the fluid in your blister for a laboratory test.

There is no cure for shingles, but you can get treatment to manage some symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications, over-the-counter pain medications, and antibacterial drugs.

Main complications of shingles

Shingles may cause health complications like Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) and Herpes zoster ophthalmicus (HZO). Post-herpetic neuralgia can occur when shingles pain persists even after the rash has faded. It’s caused by damaged nerve fibers on the skin that create discomfort. You're more prone to get severe post-herpetic neuralgia as you get older. 

In severe circumstances, if a shingle rash appears on your face, your cornea may be damaged, affecting your vision. 

Who is a candidate for the shingles vaccine?

There are two types of shingles vaccine; the live vaccine and the recombinant vaccine.

Your doctor may recommend you get a vaccine to prevent you from getting shingles if:

  • You’re unsure if you’ve ever had chickenpox before. 
  • You’ve had shingles before.
  • You’re above 50 years and in good health.
  • You received the Zostavax shingles vaccine.

Currently, the most effective shingles vaccine is called the Shingrix vaccine, recombinant zoster, which is 90% more effective. The vaccine is administered in two doses. Both doses are shot in your upper arm. Once administered, the Shingrix vaccine can remain effective for at least four years.

IMAGES

Acanthosis Nigricans Browse through our medical image collection to see and discover unique diseases and conditions See Images

What to know before getting vaccinated

Although vaccines can help prevent the development of shingles, there are a few things you should know before getting vaccinated.

Before getting the vaccine, talk to your doctor if you:

  • Have an allergic reaction to gelatin or neomycin antibiotics.
  • Have a weakened immune system due to diseases such as cancer or HIV.
  • Are taking chemotherapy medication.
  • Are on medication that may weaken your immune system (like high-dose steroids). 
  • Have an allergy to any component used to make any shingles vaccine.
  • Are pregnant or planning to get pregnant.

Prevention of shingles

If you have shingles, try keeping the rash covered and washing your hands often to prevent the spread of the virus. The best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated, especially if you’re older.

Consider receiving a chickenpox vaccine if you have never had one. If you've never had chickenpox or never gotten a chickenpox vaccination, coming into contact with a rash or blister on someone with shingles may give you chickenpox.

Tips for living with shingles

If you have shingles, consider using these tips: 

  • Wear loose clothing. 
  • Consider getting enough rest.
  • Take an oatmeal bath to help soothe your skin. 
  • Consider eating a well-balanced diet.
  • Place a cool cloth on the rash to help ease the pain and dry out the blisters. 
  • Avoid scratching the blisters to prevent infection or scars
  • If your doctor allows it, go for a walk or exercise
  • Engage in relaxing activities like watching TV, and socializing to help take off your mind your pain.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically Reviewed on 5/10/2022
References
SOURCES:

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Shingles."

Cleveland Clinic: "Shingles."

National Institutes of Health: "Shingles."

National Library of Medicine: "Shingles."