What Is Shingles and How Can It Be Treated?

Shingles is a viral infection characterized by a painful, blistery skin rash. It is caused by varicella-zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus can lie dormant in the body’s nerve roots and become reactivated as shingles years after the original infection. While shingles is not life threatening, it is often painful and can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Shingles usually lasts between two and six weeks, but some have pain lasting for months or years.

Symptoms of Shingles

The rash associated with shingles usually affects a small section of the body but occasionally becomes more widespread. A few days before the rash appears, the affected area may be painful, numb, tingling, or sensitive to touch. The rash itself is comprised of red blisters filled with fluid that tend to break open and crust over, sometimes more than once. Itching, fever, sensitivity to light, and fatigue are common symptoms. Because the pain of shingles can be intense, it is often mistaken for an internal issue before the blisters appear.

Who’s at Risk?

While anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, it’s more common among those older than age 50 who have HIV or cancer that has weakened their immune system, who are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, or who take certain medications like prednisone. However, with the chickenpox vaccine being more common in kids, fewer adults in their 20’s and 40’s get a “free vaccine” from their children. This has caused shingles to become more common in people even in their 20’s.

Treatment Options for Shingles

The doctor can usually detect shingles based on the characteristic rash, although a tissue sample may be tested. While there’s no cure for shingles, treatment with antiviral drugs can speed the healing process and reduce the risk for complications. If you are experiencing serious pain, you may be prescribed capsaicin cream, numbing agents, or oral pain medications.

Serious complications can develop, such as vision loss, neurological problems, bacterial skin infection, and postherpetic neuralgia, in which damaged nerves continue to send pain signals after the body has cleared the virus. If you suspect you have shingles, seek immediate medical attention.

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