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Shingles (Herpes Zoster)

What is shingles?

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a common viral infection of the nerves, which results in a painful rash or small blisters on an area of skin anywhere on the body. Burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching are early signs of the infedtion, usually located on one side of the body or face. Even after the rash is gone, the pain can continue for months, even years.

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox. After a person has had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in certain nerves for many years. Herpes zoster is more common in people with a depressed immune system, and in people over the age of 50.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least one million people will develop shingles annually in the U.S.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The following are the most common symptoms of shingles. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Skin sensitivity and/or pain in the area of the skin before the rash appears
  • Rash, which appears after five days and initially looks like small, red spots that turn into blisters. (This usually takes about two to three days.)
  • Blisters turn yellow and dry, often leaving small, pitted scars.

Other early symptoms of shingles may include

  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Feeling ill
  • Fever
  • Headache

The symptoms of shingles may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is shingles diagnosed?

In addition to a complete physical examination and medical history, diagnostic tests for shingles may include the following:

  • Skin scrapings--A procedure in which the skin is gently scraped to determine if the virus is shingles or another virus.
  • Blood tests

Complications of shingles

Active shingles symptoms usually do not last longer than three to five weeks. However, complications do occasionally occur. The two major complications that can occur as a result of a case of shingles include the following:

  • Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)
    The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN is characterized by continuous, chronic pain that a person feels even after the skin lesions have healed. The pain may be severe in the area where the blisters were present, and the affected skin may be very sensitive to heat and cold.

    People who are at increased risk for PHN include those who have severe pain during active shingles, those with sensory impairment, and elderly people. Early treatment of shingles may prevent PHN. In addition, analgesics (pain relieving medications) and steroid treatment (to help reduce inflammation) may be used to treat the pain and inflammation. Other treatments include antiviral drugs (acyclovir, valcyclovir, or famcyclovir), antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and topical agents.
  • Bacterial infection
    A second common and severe complication of shingles is a bacterial infection on the skin where the lesions are located. Infections can lead to further complications, such as superficial gangrene and scarring. When an infection occurs near or on the eyes, a secondary bacterial infection or corneal opacification (clouding of the cornea) may occur.

Treatment for shingles

Specific treatment for shingles will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the condition
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Antiviral medications 
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

Shingles has to run its course, because there is no cure for the disease. Treatment usually focuses on pain relief. Treatment may include painkillers to help alleviate some of the pain and antiviral drugs to help lessen some of the symptoms and minimize nerve damage. Other treatments may include:

  • Bed rest, especially during the early phase of shingles, and if fever is present
  • Calamine lotion or other topical agents
  • Cool compresses applied to affected skin areas
  • Antiviral medications (such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir)
  • Steroids
  • Antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants

A vaccine to prevent shingles was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in  2006. The vaccine, Zostavax, is recommended for adults 60 years of age and older.

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