Shingles is a rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox called the varicella-zoster virus. After someone has chicken pox, the virus remains inactive and may reactivate in adulthood to cause a painful rash. Why some people develop shingles and others do not is unknown at this time. Unlike chickenpox, shingles is not transmitted through contact with an infected individual.
Preliminary symptoms may include tingling and burning before the rash appears. This rash usually turns into small blisters which burst to create small ulcers that heal within 2-3 weeks. Others report abdominal pain, chills, muscle cramping, fever, joint pain, swollen glands, headaches and vision issues. Some patients’ pain may last for months or years in a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia.
A doctor can diagnose shingles by looking at the affected area and collecting a medical history. Though tests are rarely needed, a doctor may take a skin sample to test for the virus. Blood tests can show an increase in antibodies and the patient’s white blood cell count but cannot be used to diagnose shingles. Serious complications such as chronic pain (post-herpetic neuralgia), blindness, deafness, infection or bacterial infections may result from shingles. Beginning treatment within 24 hours of the symptoms starting reduces the risk for complications.
Early diagnosis is important in treating shingles. A round of antivirals such as acyclovir, valacyclovir or famciclovir may be prescribed to fight the virus. Oral steroids may be used to reduce swelling and pain, but do not work for all patients. Other treatments that may ease the patient’s symptoms include Zostrix, pain medications, antihistamines, cool wet compresses, soothing baths and rest.
Just as there is a vaccine for chickenpox, a vaccine for shingles is available for older individuals. Check with your health care provider for details.