Shingles, sometimes called herpes zoster, is a viral infection that produces a distinctive rash across the skin. The condition is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.
Shingles is surprisingly common: There are more than one million new cases every year, and it’s estimated that one in three American adults will eventually develop the condition. But do you know what shingles is exactly, and how can you recover from it?
Causes and Transmission
This condition is caused by the chickenpox virus, which most people have been infected with by the time they reach their teens. After you initially catch it, the virus never truly goes away; instead, it continues to survive in a state of dormancy within your nerve roots, though mostly kept at bay by your immune system.
Eventually, if your immune system gets weakened (by such factors as stress, as a side effect of another condition, or even as a natural result of aging), the virus can flare up again and begin to interfere with your body and its natural functions.
At this stage, however, you can’t get chickenpox again. The virus manifests as shingles instead. The characteristic symptom of shingles is a skin rash, but the rash can’t be spread to other people. Shingles itself is not contagious.
However, if you come in contact with someone who has never had chickenpox (and therefore never been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus), you could spread the virus to him or her, and cause that person to contract chickenpox.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of shingles tend to unfold in a series of stages. During the first stage, you may find yourself feeling particularly sensitive to light, and experiencing mild headaches and other flu-like symptoms. But shingles remains difficult to detect at this point.
Over time, you’ll begin to experience itching or pain in a particular area of your body. Although this can happen anywhere, most people feel it on one side of their torso (the right or left, but not both).
For most, the area will gradually form a red, band-like rash that itches and steadily intensifies. Eventually, the rash will likely become joined by blisters (though this isn’t always the case). The blisters fill with fluid, and have a tendency to crust over; they take two to four weeks to heal fully and sometimes leave scars.
Shingles can be different for everyone, but it’s usually accompanied by fatigue, pain, headaches, and fever. It may be experienced in multiple episodes (two, sometimes even three times), but the annual rate of recurrence is not known.
For the most part, shingles is an uncomfortable but manageable disease. It’s easily diagnosed, based on the signature rash accompanied by the other symptoms.
At this point, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, or pain medication to help address the symptoms. After a few weeks of treatment, the disease should fade on its own, as your immune system regains control.
Among a minority of patients, complications with the condition may develop, such as postherpetic neuralgia. In postherpetic neuralgia, nerve damage causes persistent nerve pain, which may flare on and off inconsistently after the initial condition has gone.
There is also a preventive vaccine available for some patients, which is capable of stopping the virus from reactivating. However, this level of treatment is usually reserved for patients at high risk for developing the condition, including elderly patients and those who have weakened immune systems.