If you have ever had chickenpox, you can develop shingles. These two conditions are caused by the same virus, known as varicella-zoster, a type of herpes virus that lies dormant in your system long after you recover from chickenpox. Here’s how to tell if you have shingles, why the virus may have reactivated and how to treat this condition.
Symptoms of Shingles
The earliest signs of shingles include burning, itching, tingling or extreme skin sensitivity, usually somewhere on the torso. Other symptoms may also be present, including muscle aches, weakness, chills and nausea.
After one to three days, a rash begins to appear on the sensitive area of skin. This is often called a “shingles band” because of the striped pattern the rash forms across the torso. Shingles can also develop on other parts of the body, including the face. What starts as red patches may eventually turn into oozing, fluid-filled blisters.
About a week to 10 days later, the blisters may crust or scab over. The infection lasts for a varying amount of time, but for most people, the rash clears up completely after two to four weeks.
What Causes Shingles?
The reason why the varicella-zoster virus reactivates and causes shingles is unclear, though a weak immune system is one potential trigger. The risk factors for shingles include:
Age: Older adults are more susceptible to shingles, possibly due to age-related loss of immunity. However, people of any age can develop shingles, including children.
Cancer or other diseases: Having an autoimmune disease, HIV/AIDS or cancer can increase your risk of shingles. Cancer treatment also weakens your immune system, which may trigger a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus.
Certain medications: Prolonged use of steroids or taking drugs to aid the success of an organ transplant may increase the risk of shingles.
Fortunately, you can prevent shingles by getting vaccinated. Anyone who has not had chickenpox can seek a vaccine for it at any age. There is also a shingles vaccine designed for adults over age 50 who have had chickenpox.
How to Treat Shingles
While there is no cure for shingles, prescription antiviral drugs can speed up the healing process. Be aware that antiviral medication doesn’t kill the varicella-zoster virus, but it stops it from multiplying, shortening the length of your infection.
Because shingles can cause severe pain, your doctor may also prescribe a cream, gel, spray, skin patch or other topical treatment to help you cope. Home remedies can also ease the discomfort of shingles, including soaking in a cool bath and applying a wet compress to the rash.
Be aware that the varicella-zoster virus is contagious. If you come in contact with someone who hasn’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, you could pass the virus on to them. Stay home from work or school until your rash has healed completely.