What is shingles?
Shingles is an infection that can happen to anyone who has ever had chickenpox. The same virus that causes chickenpox also causes shingles.
After you have had chickenpox, the virus stays in your body where it is inactive for many years. The virus can reactivate and spread to the skin causing shingles infection (not chickenpox). The reason for this is unclear but it may be due to changes that occur in the immune system as you age. Shingles is more common in older adults and in people with weak immune systems, although healthy people of any age can also develop the infection.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
- throbbing, stabbing or sharp pain (early warning sign)
- unusual skin sensations including tingling, numbness, burning or sensitivity – most often affects the back, chest, or face, but can occur on any part of the body
- mild fever and fatigue (feeling tired)
- shingles rash, which looks like small fluid-filled blisters that appear as a band or strip, usually on one side of the face or body
The rash usually appears a few days after the pain starts. The rash is almost always very itchy and is often painful. The rash and pain last approximately 2 to 3 weeks.
The most common complication of shingles is pain after the rash has healed, which can last several weeks or months—maybe even longer. The risk of continued pain is higher in older individuals.
You should see a health care provider if the illness seems to be causing more serious symptoms.
How are shingles spread?
- The virus is spread to others through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash and the fluid from the blisters. People who have never had chickenpox and are in contact with the shingles rash can get chickenpox infection.
- If you have shingles infection, avoid close contact with people who have never had chickenpox or who have not received the chickenpox vaccine, until the blisters have healed. Covering the rash with a dressing that can absorb the fluid and protect the sores can help prevent the spread of the virus to others.
How are shingles treated?
- If you suspect shingles, see your health care provider immediately. Your health care provider can prescribe an antiviral medication.
- Starting treatment within 48 to 72 hours from when the rash appears can speed up how quickly the rash heals and reduce pain.
- Use an icepack or a cool moist compress, bathe with cool water, and wear loose-fitting clothing to help with the pain or discomfort from the rash.
You can treat mild symptoms at home. Learn more about self-care of infectious diseases.
How are shingles prevented?
- The chickenpox vaccine is offered to people over 12 months of age to prevent chickenpox. Even though the vaccine can’t guarantee you won’t get chickenpox or shingles, it can reduce your chances of developing complications from the infection and reduce the symptoms of the disease.
- The Zostavax® vaccine is used to prevent shingles in people 50 years of age or older.