What is Shingles?

Shingles is caused by the same virus that is responsible for chicken pox (varicella zoster virus). It remains dormant in a nerve near the spinal cord and brain in those who chicken pox. When it becomes active it appears as a painful blistering rash.

It most often appears on either side of the trunk, but it can appear on the face near the eye and cause permanent vision loss if ignored. Those who are most at risk for shingles are people over 70 and those with compromised immune systems. Researchers are uncertain as to why the varicella zoster virus comes out of dormancy, but it may happen when a person is in a mentally or physically weakened condition. Shingles is not contagious, but those who have not had chicken pox or the vaccination can contract if from someone with shingles.

What are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Most people with shingles experience symptoms that may include:

  • Pain (possibly intense), burning, tingly or numb patch of skin
  • Red fluid-filled blistering rash develops in aforementioned area
  • Blisters break open, ooze and become crusty
  • Rash becomes itchy

Some people with shingles may experience:

  • High temperature
  • Head pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Lethargy

Shingles Causes

A virus known as varicella-zoster virus causes shingles. Any patient who is suffering from chicken pox may eventually develop shingles. On recovery from chicken pox, the virus may spread along your nerve pathways to your skin. In most cases, it is a result of the virus entering your nervous system and lying dormant for years. The reasons for the encore remain unclear.

The virus stays dormant forever in some people. In others, it is triggered by diseases, aging weakness of the immune system or by stress. Alternatively, some medicines may trigger it to rise and cause a shingle rash. When the virus is activated, it causes shingles and not chickenpox. Shingles is quite common among senior citizens and people who have weak immune systems.

A patient suffering from shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to someone else who has a weak immune system. The individual with a weak immune system is susceptible to get infected by chicken pox through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash.

How is Shingles Treated?

There are no curative solutions for shingles, but complications can be prevented, and the pain can be alleviated. Treatment options may include:

  • Anti-viral cream to hasten healing
  • Capsaicin cream or numbing medication such as lidocaine
  • Narcotic pain medication
  • Cool wet compresses to relieve itching and pain
  • Tricyclic antidepressant for pain
  • Gabapentin to target nerve pain
  • Epidural injection for pain
  • Stress reduction through meditation and other relaxation techniques

Shingles generally lasts from two to six weeks. If the rash becomes extensive, if it is near the eye(s), if the immune system is weak or if the person is over 70, seek medical care.  Although most will only suffer with shingles once, it can recur multiple times.

Shingles Prevention

The most common approach to prevention is vaccination, which can assist you from developing serious shingles symptoms or complications. Senior citizens who have never been infected by chicken pox should get vaccinated. Children need to get two doses of the chickenpox vaccine called a varicella immunization. Vaccination doesn’t guarantee you will be chickenpox free but prevents nine in ten people from getting infected.

Individuals who are over sixty years need to get a shingles vaccine known as varicella-zoster. It helps in preventing severe complications and symptoms of shingles. It is prudent for the infected person to take necessary precautionary measure to prevent its spread by doing the following:

  • Avoiding contact with individuals who haven’t had chickenpox or have weak immune systems
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Always keeping the rash covered.
Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 07, 2017