Shingles, also called herpes zoster, affects one in three Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This condition is a viral infection characterized by an itchy, painful rash. It can occur in anyone who has had chickenpox, and outbreaks occur when the varicella-zoster virus, which causes both illnesses, is reactivated in the body. Here’s what you need to know about signs, risk factors, prevention, and treatment of shingles.
Symptoms of Shingles
The telltale sign of herpes zoster is a small rash that usually affects a confined area of the body. A strip of tiny blisters across one side of the torso is most common, but shingles can occur anywhere. The blisters may break open and form a scab.
In addition to the rash, you may notice pain, tingling, numbness, and/or a burning sensation in the affected area. Pain caused by shingles is often quite intense and can occur even without development of a rash. In fact, some people continue to experience pain months to years after the rash has subsided, a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Other possible symptoms include fever, sensitivity to light, headache, and fatigue.
Why Shingles Occurs
Doctors aren’t sure why the varicella-zoster virus, which stays dormant in those who have had chickenpox, becomes reactivated as shingles. However, they do know that it is more common among adults older than age 50, those who have cancer or HIV, and people on certain medications, such as steroids.
If you’ve never had chickenpox, you likely have received the varicella vaccine, which also prevents shingles. Vaccination means you are significantly less likely to contract chickenpox—and shingles, by extension—and if you do get it, your symptoms will usually be less severe.
If you have had chickenpox, you can get a shingles vaccine if you are older than age 50. There are two different options available, Shingrix and Zostavax. Your doctor may recommend one over the other, depending on your age and overall health.
Seeking Medical Treatment
See a doctor right away if you develop shingles symptoms. Shingles is contagious to people who have not had chickenpox, and will result in chickenpox, not shingles, if such a person comes in direct contact with the rash. Cover the area with bandages until you are diagnosed.
Medical treatment is especially important if you are older than 60; if the rash is large, painful, or near the eyes; or if you have an immune system deficiency. Although shingles cannot be cured, serious complications can develop without treatment, including vision loss, chronic nerve pain, infection, and neurological issues. If you are diagnosed with shingles, antiviral medications can help speed your recovery time up and prevent other health issues related to the virus.
The doctors at The Dermatology Clinic have provided care for patients with shingles and other skin conditions since 1947. Call (225) 769-7546 or complete our online form to schedule your consultation.