Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This virus also causes chickenpox, which most people recover from as children, but it remains in their nervous system for the rest of their lives.
The risk of shingles increases with age, and it is estimated that 1 in 3 people over the age of 85 will get shingles. Shingles can be very painful, but it usually clears up in about a week.
What Is the Cause of Shingles? Is Shingles Caused By a Virus?
Shingles is caused by a virus. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is a contagious virus that can cause inflammation of the skin and nerves in the neck, chest, or face. It’s most commonly spread through contact with chickenpox blisters or saliva from an infected person.
The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in the body. For unknown reasons, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.
But there’s more to the story: The reactivation of the virus is thought to be triggered by stress, a weakened immune system, or certain medications or illnesses. Once reactivated, the virus travels along nerve pathways to your skin, causing a painful rash.
What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?
The first symptom of shingles is usually pain, tingling, or burning on one side of the body or face. This is followed by a rash that appears as a band or strip of blisters on the same side of the body or face. The blisters are usually painful and can last for 2-4 weeks. Other symptoms of shingles include fever, headache, fatigue, and sensitivity to light. Shingles can be very painful and can make it difficult to perform everyday activities such as working or caring for children.
The symptoms usually show up two to three weeks after you’ve been infected with VZV. They may last for several days or weeks, but usually, go away on their own within two to six months without treatment. However, if you have severe shingles or complications from it such as vision problems or seizures, you may need medical help to recover fully.
If you think you might have shingles, it’s important to see a doctor right away because early treatment can help relieve symptoms and prevent complications. There is no cure for shingles but there are treatments that can help ease pain and speed healing.
What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Shingles?
There are a few risk factors for developing shingles, but the most common is age. Anyone can develop shingles, regardless of their immune system strength. Other risk factors include:
- Having had chickenpox in the past
- Being infected with any other virus that causes herpes (such as Epstein Barr or human papillomavirus)
- Having a weakened immune system due to illness, surgery, or radiation therapy
- Having chronic pain or numbness anywhere on your body due to nerve damage from diabetes or another condition
- Age: The risk of developing shingles increases with age. Shingles is most common in people over the age of 50.
- Stress: Stress can weaken the immune system and may increase your risk of developing shingles.
How Is Shingles Diagnosed?
A doctor will look at the person’s symptoms to diagnose shingles. This includes checking for rash, pain, blisters, or sensitivity to light.
The doctor may also ask about previous history of herpes zoster (shingles), exposure to chickenpox, or other diseases that could cause similar symptoms.
After diagnosing shingles, the doctor may prescribe medication to relieve pain and treat any related infections.
How Is Shingles Treated?
There are two main types of treatment for shingles: antiviral therapy and pain relief.
Antiviral therapy helps to kill the VZV infection, while pain relief helps to relieve the symptoms of shingles, such as itching and burning. Antiviral drugs can help shorten the duration of the virus and make the symptoms less severe.
The goal of treatment is to relieve pain and reduce the inflammation caused by the virus so it doesn’t cause long-term damage or disability.
Both treatments have their own benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to choose the best option for you depending on your situation.
If you have advanced stages of shingles or if it causes significant pain or disability, then antiviral therapy may be the best option for you. However, this type of treatment has some side effects, so it’s important to discuss these with your doctor before starting it.
Pain relief is usually more effective in relieving symptoms of shingles, but it doesn’t always work well enough to stop the spread of VZV infection. So if you’re not able to take antivirals due to side effects, then pain relief might be your best option.
Other treatments for shingles include pain relief medication, cool compresses, and topical creams or ointments.
Can Shingles Be Prevented?
There is a vaccine available called Shingrix that helps prevent shingles from happening. The vaccination has a 90% success rate, so there is a good chance of avoiding it if you get vaccinated.
The best time to get vaccinated against shingles is when you are between 18 and 59 years old. You should also talk to your doctor about whether or not he or she recommends getting vaccinated for you or your loved ones.
Although the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that causes shingles can be prevented with a vaccine, once a person has the virus, it is not possible to prevent shingles. However, there are some things that can be done to reduce the risk of developing shingles and its complications.
For example, people who have had chickenpox or who have been vaccinated against chickenpox are less likely to develop shingles. In addition, people who have a weakened immune system (due to conditions such as HIV/AIDS or cancer) are also at increased risk for developing shingles. Therefore, it is important for people with weakened immune systems to avoid contact with others who have active shingles lesions.
What Are the Complications of Shingles?
The most common complication is pain; about half of people who get shingles experience significant discomfort. Other complications may include redness (due to rash formation), blistering (especially on areas where clothing rubs against the skin), and swelling (from the accumulation of fluid). In rare cases, infections may develop as a result of shingles.
Shingles can cause a number of serious complications. These include:
- Infection of the skin around the blisters (cellulitis)
- Eye problems, such as inflammation of the cornea (keratitis) or retina (retinitis)
- Brain inflammation (encephalitis)
- Lung inflammation (pneumonitis)
- Heart problems, such as inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or its covering (pericarditis)
- Pneumonia (lung infection)
How Long Does It Take for Shingles to Go Away?
It can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks for shingles to go away.
Shingles usually goes away on its own in 2 to 4 weeks. But some people have lingering pain for months or even years after the rash goes away. This pain is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
There are treatments that can help ease the pain of PHN, but there is no cure for it. You can also get vaccinated against shingles to help prevent it from happening in the first place.
What Is the Prognosis for People with Shingles?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the prognosis for people with shingles will vary depending on their individual situation. However, most people who have shingles experience mild discomfort and a few days of fever followed by complete healing within two weeks. In some cases, however, there may be long-term complications such as residual pain or numbness in the area where the rash appeared. It’s important to speak with your doctor about your specific case to get an accurate prognosis.
What Research Is Being Done on Shingles?
Scientists are still trying to understand all of the factors that contribute to the development of shingles. There are many different types of research being conducted on shingles, including:
- epidemiology (the study of population health),
- virology (the study of viruses),
- immunology (the study of immune system response),
- neurology (the study of the brain and nervous system),
- rheumatology (the study of arthritis),
- dermatology (skin diseases),
- and neck surgery (ear nose throat surgery) … just to name a few!
Where Can I Find More Information about Shingles?
You can find more information about shingles on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The CDC has a wealth of information about shingles, including its causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention. The CDC also provides resources to help health professionals learn more about shingles and how to treat it.