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Shingles (Herpes Zoster)

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus (germ) that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus often remains dormant in your nerve cells. Years later, the virus can become active again and travel to the skin. Most people have shingles only once, but it is possible to have it a second or even a third time. When shingles does recur, it may affect a different part of the body.

What are the risk factors for shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles. But your risk is greater if you:

  • Are age 50 or older

  • Have an illness that weakens your immune system, such as HIV infection

  • Have cancer, especially leukemia or lymphoma

  • Take medicines that suppress your immune system, such as steroids or those given after an organ transplant

What are the symptoms of shingles?
Man sitting on exam table. Healthcare provider is putting on gloves getting ready to examine rash on man's side.
The shingles rash usually appears on just one side of the body.

  • The first sign of shingles is usually pain, burning, tingling, or itching on one part of your face or body. You may also feel as if you have the flu, with fever, chills, headache, or upset stomach.

  • A red rash with small blisters appears within 1 to 5 days. The blisters can occur anywhere, but they’re most common on the back, chest, or abdomen. They usually appear on only one side of the body, spreading along the nerve pathway that held the virus. The rash can also form around an eye, along one side of the face or neck, or in the mouth. In a few people, shingles appear on more than one part of the body at once.

  • After 7 to 10 days, the blisters dry and scab over. In most cases, the rash clears completely after 2 to 4 weeks. The blisters generally do not leave scars.

Treatment for shingles

Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you have shingles. Treatment with antiviral medicines is recommended as soon as possible to speed healing, ease symptoms, and reduce the risk of complications. To care for your symptoms:

  • Apply wet compresses to your skin or soak in an oatmeal bath.

  • Use calamine lotion to calm itchy skin.

  • Ask your healthcare provider about over-the-counter pain relievers.

Complications of shingles

Shingles often goes away with no lasting effects. But some people have serious problems long after the blisters have healed:

  • Postherpetic neuralgia. This is severe pain that lasts for months or even years after you have shingles. It is more common in older adults. Medicines and skin ointments can be prescribed to help relieve the pain.

  • Bacterial infection. Instead of healing normally, shingles blisters become infected with bacteria.

  • Vision loss. Shingles that occurs in the eye can lead to vision loss or blindness (very rare).

  • Nerve damage. Shingles that affects nerves in the face can rarely cause hearing loss and loss of movement (paralysis) of certain muscles in the face.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you think you have shingles. Treatment with antiviral medicines is recommended. They work best if taken soon after the rash appears.  

Preventing the spread of the virus

Shingles can’t be spread to another person. However, the blisters of shingles have varicella-zoster virus. You can cause chickenpox in someone who hasn’t previously had chickenpox or been vaccinated. Until your blisters crust over, stay away from others, especially the following:

  • Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox (the virus can harm a developing baby)

  • Premature or low-birth-weight babies

  • People with a weakened immune system

The shingles vaccine

If you’re age 50 or older, the VA recommends that you receive the newest shingles vaccine. Two doses are recommended to get the most protection. The vaccine makes it less likely that you will develop shingles. If you do develop shingles, your symptoms will likely be milder than if you hadn’t been vaccinated. The new vaccine is also recommended even if you previously received the older shingles vaccine because it is more effective and protects people from shingles longer. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you need the new vaccine.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 4/1/2018
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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