The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. It’s called the varicella zoster virus (VZV).
Even after you recover from chickenpox, VZV stays dormant in the body. The chickenpox virus can reactivate years or even decades later, but it’s not understood why.
When this happens, a person will develop shingles. It can be a painful condition with severe complications, so recognizing the early symptoms is important.
Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles. But some people are more likely to develop shingles than others.
It is estimated that half of all cases of shingles occur in people aged 60 years and older.
Other groups prone to developing shingles include:
- people with HIV
- people undergoing cancer treatments
- organ transplant patients
- those experiencing a lot of stress
Early symptoms can appear several days before the more obvious symptoms of shingles.
The most common early symptoms are centered in one part of the body or face. This often occurs in the abdominal area.
These symptoms many include:
- burning pain
The pain can worsen as shingles develops. The pain can be sharp, stabbing, and intense.
It may also cause hypersensitivity, or an excessive reaction to touch.
There are also other early symptoms of shingles.
Although not every person with shingles will experience them, early symptoms include:
- aching muscles
- general feeling of being unwell
Your doctor can often diagnose shingles based on these symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe medication to shorten the length of the illness.
Medication also reduces the chance of complications, so seeking early intervention is important.
After about one to five days, a shingles rash will appear in a single characteristic band around one side of the torso or face.
The rash will then form itchy, blisterlike sores filled with a clear fluid. The blisters will scab over in 7 to 10 days. They’ll gradually grow smaller before disappearing.
Shingles symptoms commonly last between 2 to 4 weeks.
Call your doctor as soon as shingles is suspected, so that treatment can begin as early as possible.
Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir (Zovirax) or valacyclovir (Valtrex) can make symptoms less severe and can shorten the length of the illness if taken early on.
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.
The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN causes severe pain even after the shingles rash has cleared.
People aged 60 years and older who don’t seek treatment for shingles are more likely to develop PHN.
Shingles can also cause serious sight problems if it infects the structures of the eye.
Other rare complications include:
- hearing problems
- brain inflammation
In such cases, shingles can be fatal.
If health complications such as PHN have developed as a result of shingles, further treatment will be necessary.
Treatment for PHN can last months, years, or may require lifelong medical care.
If you don’t experience any complications while you have shingles, you can usually expect to make a full recovery.
However, recent studies show that shingles recurrence is higher than believed. About 8% of cases recur.
Fortunately, proactive steps can be taken to prevent attacks in children and seniors.
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 case of shingles can still receive the vaccine.
However, the vaccine isn’t suitable for people with a weakened immune system.
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