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What Causes Shingles and How to Treat It

What Causes Shingles and How to Treat It

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful rash that develops usually on the torso but can occur anywhere on the body. The same virus that leads to chickenpox, called the varicella-zoster virus, is what causes shingles.

While this rash isn’t life-threatening, it can be extremely painful. Let’s take a closer look at what causes shingles, the symptoms usually associated with the virus, and some ways you can treat or prevent it.

What Causes Shingles

If you have had chickenpox, you already have the virus that causes shingles. The first time you’re exposed to the varicella-zoster virus is when you get chickenpox. Your body builds up an immunity to that virus during that time, so it’s rare to get chickenpox a second time.

After you recover from chickenpox, the virus is still in your body. It just lies dormant in your nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic. Maintaining a strong immune system helps keep the virus from reemerging.

While shingles can occur in people of any age, it’s more common in those aged 50 and older. That’s believed to be because our immune systems generally weaken as we age.

Just because you have had chickenpox doesn’t mean you will definitely get shingles at some point in your life. According to the CDC, about 1 in 3 people in the United States will develop shingles.

Who is at Higher Risk of Developing Shingles

While it’s possible for anyone who has had chickenpox to develop shingles, there are a few factors that can make it more likely.

The first is your age. As mentioned a few lines up, people aged 50 and above are at higher risk. That risk increases as you age.

Having certain diseases also puts you at a higher risk. Some of those diseases include HIV/AIDS and cancer. Any disease that leaves you with a compromised immune system would put you in this category.

Those undergoing cancer treatment could also develop shingles. Radiation and chemotherapy can trigger the virus.

Certain medications can also increase your risk. Medicines that are meant to help reduce the risk of your body rejecting transplanted organs can leave you in the high-risk category for shingles. The prolonged use of steroids can cause this, as well.

Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

Shingles will usually affect only one side of your body, most often somewhere on the torso. In the early stages of shingles, you’re likely to notice pain as the first symptom. Other symptoms can include:

  • Burning, tingling, or numbness
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • A red rash that shows up a few days after the pain
  • Fluid-filled blisters (these will eventually break open and crust over)
  • Itching
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

When it comes to shingles, it’s usually the pain that is the worst symptom. The virus typically affects one sensory nerve ganglion, which is a cluster of nerve cells outside of your central nervous system. That’s why the pain can be so intense, why the rash is usually limited to one area, and why the pain comes from the nerves and not directly from the rash.

The pain can sometimes feel like it’s coming from organs like your heart, kidneys, appendix, or gall bladder, which might make you think the problem is more serious.

As far as the rash, there are a few characteristics to look for if you’re still trying to decide if you’re dealing with shingles or something else.

A shingles rash will look like a band of blisters that are on top of red, inflamed skin. Again, this will most likely be on one side of your body and limited to one area.

Example of a shingles rash on an older adult’s torso

Stages of Shingles

Symptoms can last for up to 4 weeks in some cases. You can follow the stages of shingles to get an estimate of how far along in the process you are.

The first stage is where you’ll start to notice the pain, tingling, and numbness that can get worse as the days progress. The beginning stages of shingles can last for up to 2 weeks before the rash appears.

As the rash progresses, you’ll go from seeing red blotches to fluid-filled blisters over the course of about 3 – 5 days.

The virus is contagious from the time the rash comes up until it eventually scabs over. To prevent spreading it, you should avoid contact with pregnant women that have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, premature or low birth weight infants, and people with weakened immune systems.

Over the next 7 – 10 days, the blisters will dry up and scab over, forming a kind of crust. Sometimes this can leave scarring behind after the rash heals.

You’re looking at about 2 – 4 weeks from start to finish when dealing with shingles. Most people will only get it once, but it’s possible for it to reemerge at some point.

Some people experience complications from shingles, including pain that lasts three months or longer, sensitivity to light touch, and itching and numbness. The condition is called postherpetic neuralgia.

Shingles Treatment and Prevention

There’s no cure for shingles. You really just have to treat the symptoms and let the virus run its course.

Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help speed up the process of the virus, reduce the severity of your symptoms, and lower your chances of having complications. To go this route you’ll need to make sure you get diagnosed early on. Antivirals won’t be effective if you’re already towards the end of the symptoms.

If your case of shingles has appeared on your face or you think it may be developing there, you need to see your doctor immediately. You’re at risk of developing serious complications like blindness, impaired hearing, and brain swelling.

The largest part of treating shingles will be pain management. A doctor may prescribe painkillers if the pain is severe enough. You can also use regular over-the-counter pain relievers for more mild cases.

Topical ointments are also popular to help treat the rash. Lidocaine or a calamine lotion is commonly used. Itching and pain can also be addressed by taking a cool bath or applying cool, wet compresses to the affected area.

Shingles Vaccine

There are a couple of vaccines available that can help prevent shingles. There are certain age limits to get the vaccines. Those limits depend on which vaccine you’re getting, so you’ll need to have that conversation with your doctor.

Even if you do get vaccinated, that doesn’t totally eliminate your chances of getting shingles. At the very least your symptoms will be lessened and you won’t have to deal with them for as long as you would have if you didn’t get the vaccine.

It’s important to note these vaccines are only intended as prevention methods. If you have already received a shingles diagnosis, the vaccine will not help cure the condition.