First Blush: Early Symptoms of Shingles
What Is Shingles?
Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus (VZV). Even after you recover from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in the body. Although it’s not yet fully understood why, the chickenpox virus can reactivate years or even decades later. When this happens, a person will suffer shingles.
Shingles can be a painful condition with severe complications, so recognizing the early symptoms is important. Click through to learn more about shingles and its early symptoms.
Can Anyone Develop Shingles?
Anyone who has suffered from chickenpox in the past can develop shingles, but some people are more likely to develop shingles than others.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates half of all cases of shingles occur among people aged 60 years or over.
Other groups prone to shingles include:
- those suffering from HIV
- people undergoing cancer treatments
- organ transplant patients
- those suffering from stress
The First Signs of Shingles
Early symptoms can start several days before the more obvious symptoms of shingles.
The most common early symptom is a feeling of numbness, itching, tingling or a burning pain centered in one part of the body or face. Often, this occurs in the abdominal area.
The pain can worsen as the case of shingles develops. For some, the pain can be sharp, stabbing, and intense. It may cause hypersensitivity.
However, pain is not the only early sign of shingles.
Other Early Symptoms of Shingles
Although not every shingles sufferer will experience them, early symptoms include:
- aching muscles
- a general feeling of being unwell
- a fever of 100.4°F
Your doctor can often diagnose shingles based on early symptoms. They can prescribe medication to shorten the life of the illness. This also reduces the chance of complications, so seeking early intervention is important.
What Shingles Symptoms Come Next?
After about one to five days, a shingles rash will appear in a characteristic single band around one side of the torso or face.
The rash will then form itchy blister-like sores filled with a clear fluid. The blisters will scab over in 7 to 10 days, gradually growing smaller before disappearing.
Shingles symptoms commonly last between 2 to 4 weeks.
I Have Shingles—What Treatment Is There?
Call your doctor as soon as shingles is suspected, so that treatment can begin as early as possible. Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir or valacyclovir can make symptoms less severe and can shorten the length of the illness if taken early on.
Painkillers are often supplied to lessen the discomfort when shingles is diagnosed at a more advanced stage. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths can also be helpful in reducing itching.
I Have Shingles—Am I Contagious?
Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another, but someone who has never had chickenpox can contract VZV from a person with active shingles. They would then develop chickenpox, not shingles.
Only direct contact with fluid from shingles blisters can transmit the virus. Keeping shingles blisters covered with a fluid absorbent dressing can prevent others from contracting the virus.
What Are the Health Complications?
The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes severe pain even after the shingles rash has cleared. People aged 60 and older who don’t seek treatment for shingles are most likely to develop PHN.
Shingles can also cause serious sight problems if it infects the structures of the eye. Other rare complications include pneumonia, hearing problems, and even brain inflammation. In such cases, shingles can be fatal.
Life After a Shingles Attack
If health complications such as PHN have arisen as a result of shingles, further treatment will be necessary. Treatment for PHN can last months, years, or may require lifelong medical care.
If the shingles attack has produced no complications, sufferers can expect to make a full recovery. Healthy adults are unlikely to suffer a shingles attack more than once.
Fortunately, proactive steps can be taken to prevent attacks in children and seniors.
Prevention Is Better Than Treatment
Childhood immunizations routinely include a varicella vaccine to prevent chickenpox. The vaccine also helps to reduce the number of people who develop shingles later in life.
The CDC recommends a shingles vaccine called Zostavax for those 60 years of age and older, whether or not you’ve ever had chickenpox. Even seniors who have had a recent attack of shingles can still receive the vaccine.
However, the vaccine isn’t suitable for people with a weakened immune system.
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