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What Is Shingles?

Herpes zoster, also called shingles, is an uncomfortable and often very painful outbreak of skin blisters and sores. It affects nearly one million individuals per year in the United States. Most individuals are over age 50 or have a weakened immune system.

Some medicines can help relieve symptoms and prevent complications. Also, a vaccine (Zostavax) is now available for prevention in people 60 years and older.

What Causes Shingles?

The cause is varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After people have chickenpox, the virus usually stays inactive (dormant). But if antibodies to this virus get low decades later, the virus can become active and cause shingles.

People who have not been vaccinated for chickenpox can catch it from someone with active shingles.

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

The virus lives in nerves near the spine. Activated virus travels along the nerves to the skin. It then causes a rash on the skin in groups or bands at the nerve endings. The rash usually stays as a band going across part of the body on one side. The rash can occur anywhere.

Early vague symptoms are mild itching, tingling, pain, headache, fever, or flulike syndrome. The rash that follows consists of many small, fluid-filled blisters in groups that dry, scab over, and heal (like chickenpox) in a few weeks. Healing is usually complete. Scars may persist in the area of the blisters.

The amount of pain and discomfort of shingles varies from person to person.

A significant number of people, especially those older than 50, can have pain (called postherpetic neuralgia) for more than 30 days. It can be very severe and interfere with daily activity.

People who scratch the rash can also get a bacterial infection.

Shingles on the face can involve the eyes, which is serious and can cause scarring and blindness.

How Is Shingles Diagnosed?

The health care provider will diagnose shingles by examining the skin. Blood tests are rarely needed. Blister fluid may be studied if the diagnosis is unclear.

How Is Shingles Treated?

The main goals are to shorten the infection, reduce discomfort, and prevent complications. Antiviral medicine, started early (within 2 or 3 days), can help the rash and pain. These drugs include acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir. Other drugs and lotions can help with pain and itching.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Shingles:

  • DO tell your health care provider about your medical problems and prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines.
  • DO keep blisters clean. Don’t bandage the blisters.
  • DO avoid anyone who never had chickenpox or didn’t get immunized, pregnant women, or people with cancer.
  • DO get medical care as soon as you think that you may have shingles.
  • DO call your health care provider if the rash is on your face or nose, the pain doesn’t get better after the rash heals, or the rash looks infected.
  • DON’T stop taking your medicine or change your dose because you feel better unless your health care provider tells you.
  • DON’T shave the area with the rash.
  • DON’T scratch, contaminate, or break the blisters.

Contact the following source:

  • American Academy of Dermatology
    Tel: (866) 503-SKIN (7546)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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