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Shingles is an infection caused by the virus varicella-zoster, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Even after chickenpox is treated, the virus may live on in your nerve tissues for years before reactivating as shingles. Shingles may also be referred to as herpes zoster.
This type of viral infection is characterized by a red skin rash that usually causes pain and burning. Shingles usually appears as a stripe of blisters on one side of the body, typically on the torso, neck, or face.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year there are an estimated one million cases of herpes zoster in the United States (CDC, 2011).
Most cases of shingles clear up within two to three weeks. Shingles rarely recurs more than once in the same individual.
Shingles can occur in anyone who has had chickenpox. However, certain factors put individuals at risk for developing shingles.
Risk factors include:
The first symptoms of shingles are usually pain and burning. The pain is usually on one side of the body and occurs in small patches. A red rash typically follows.
Rash characteristics include:
Some individuals experience symptoms beyond pain and a rash with shingles. These symptoms may include:
Most cases of shingles can be diagnosed with a physical examination of rashes and blisters. Your doctor may also ask questions about your medical history.
Rarely, your doctor may need to test a sample of your skin or the fluid from your blisters. This involves using a sterile swab to collect a sample of tissue or fluid. Samples are then sent to a medical laboratory to confirm presence of the virus.
There is no cure for shingles, but medication may be prescribed to ease symptoms and shorten the length of the infection.
Medications prescribed for shingles may include:
Home treatment can also help ease symptoms. Home treatments may include:
Shingles typically clears up within a few weeks and rarely recurs.
Vaccines can help keep you from developing severe shingles symptoms or complications from shingles. All children should receive a chickenpox vaccine, also known as a varicella immunization. Adults who have never had chicken pox should also get this vaccine. The immunization does not necessarily mean that you won’t get chickenpox, but it can help reduce the severity of your symptoms.
Adults who are age 60 or older should get a shingles vaccine, also known as the varicella-zoster immunization. This vaccine helps to prevent severe symptoms and complications associated with shingles.
Shingles is contagious. If you become infected, certain steps must be taken to prevent spread of the infection.
Preventing the spread of shingles includes:
Although rare, complications from varicella zoster infection may arise. Complications may include:
Written by: Janelle Martel
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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