If you had chickenpox as a kid (or even as an adult), then you are at risk for getting the painful, blistering rash known as shingles later in life. Almost one in three people will develop shingles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Find out the telltale symptoms, how to treat shingles and how shingles spreads with this fact sheet.
What is shingles?
Shingles (herpes zoster) is a painful viral skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After someone experiences chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in the body. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why, but the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.
What are symptoms of shingles?
Usually the first symptom of shingles is pain, itching or tingling in a small area on one side of the face or body, followed by a red, painful rash a few days later. After a week or so, the rash forms a group or strip of itchy, fluid-filled blisters that eventually crust over. The shingles rash typically appears as a band across the right or left side of your torso. It can also show up on one side of the face, on the forehead or around the mouth, an eye or an ear. Some people also experience the following:
- Stomach ache
If you have symptoms that you think might be shingles, see your doctor right away. Several antiviral medications can help shorten the course of the infection, but aren’t as effective if you begin them more than three days after symptoms appear.
Who is at risk for shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, even children. However, some people are at greater risk than others. These include people who:
- Have a weakened immune system.
- Receive immunosuppressive drugs.
- Are over 60 years old.
- Had chickenpox as an infant.
Some experts believe that stress may contribute to a shingles outbreak. The idea is that stress can suppress your immune system, which may make your body less able to control the shingles virus.
How is shingles spread?
The shingles virus can spread from person to person through direct, skin-to-skin contact with fluid from the blisters. Those infected can get chickenpox from this exposure if they have not had chickenpox before or if they have not been vaccinated against the virus. Touching the hands of a person who touched fluid from the rash can also lead to infection. Once the rash blisters scab, a person is no longer contagious.
If you have shingles, the CDC recommends the following to prevent spreading the virus:
- Cover the rash.
- Avoid scratching or touching the rash.
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid contact with premature infants, pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine and people with weakened immune systems.
What are complications of shingles?
The most common complication of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with this condition have throbbing or burning pain that continues long after the skin rash clears up. The pain typically resolves itself after a few weeks or months, but in more severe cases it can last for years. Rarely shingles can lead to:
- Skin infections
- Hearing problems
- Vision loss or blindness
- Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
How can I prevent shingles?
There is a vaccine for shingles. The CDC recommends that all people ages 60 and older receive the vaccine, including those who have had a previous episode of shingles. You should not get the shingles vaccine if you have a weakened immune system or have untreated tuberculosis. It’s also not recommended for people who have an allergy to gelatin or neomycin.
How is shingles treated?
There is no cure for shingles, but there are a number of treatments that can help shorten the length of the illness and relieve symptoms. Without treatment, the infection will typically go away after two to five weeks.
- Anti-viral drugs (acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir) shorten the healing process and reduce symptoms. These drugs are only effective if taken as soon as possible after the rash appears.
- Over-the-counter and prescription pain medicines can relieve pain.
- Topical pain relievers applied to the skin can help ease the pain.
- Corticosteroids (prednisone) can help reduce swelling and severe pain in severe cases.
Natural pain relievers:
- Topical capsaicin cream may help decrease pain once blisters have healed.
- Wet compresses
- Calamine lotion
- Colloidal oatmeal baths
Note: These treatments will not treat the infection itself and medical attention should be sought immediately if infection is suspected. These natural remedies may help ease pain during and after the infection and should not replace medical therapy.
Can I get shingles more than once?
If you’ve had shingles in the past, there is a small chance you could have it again down the road. This happens to only about 4% of the population. If you’re concerned about shingles and are 50 years old or older, ask your doctor if the shingles vaccine is right for you.