Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a skin condition caused by the chickenpox virus. If you had chickenpox, you can get shingles. After recovering from chickenpox, the virus invades the nervous system where it can lie dormant for years before erupting in a painful rash that appears along nerve pathways.
It’s not clear what triggers the virus to reactivate, but one in three individuals over the age of 50 will develop shingles during their lifetime.
Shingles often begin on one side of the body with a burning, itching or tingling sensation. Within a few days, a rash appears in the affected area. An outbreak of clear blisters soon follows, and the blisters later crust over before healing.
Some individuals experience severe pain during the blister phase. Once the rash heals, pain typically lessens, but may persist for months or even years. Fever and headache may also occur with the rash.
During the active phase, the herpes zoster virus is contagious and can cause chickenpox in those who have never had the virus or who have no been immunized. However, shingles are not as contagious as chickenpox, and are typically spread only through direct contact with the blisters.
Most cases of shingles resolve within a few weeks, but immediate treatment by your dermatologist can reduce the intensity and duration of pain.
If diagnosed within the first 72 hours, your dermatologist may also prescribe an anti-viral medication to decrease pain and shorten the course of the illness. Nerve blocks may be used to provide relief from intense pain. After the acute phase, other medications may be prescribed, if pain is still present.
It’s important to seek treatment from your dermatologist as soon as possible if you develop blisters on the tip of the nose, near the eye, or in the eye since shingles in the eye can lead to serious complications including glaucoma, scarring and blindness. Other signs that the virus has invaded the eye include redness, swelling, eye pain and/or blurred vision.
To reduce your risk of getting shingles, ask your dermatologist or health care professional about the varicella-zoster vaccine. The vaccine is approved for adults over the age of 50 and lasts about 5 years. If you have been vaccinated and still get shingles, the vaccine should reduce the symptoms of the virus.