What is shingles?

Shingles is a painful rash with blisters that is caused by the same virus as chickenpox, but occurs many years after the initial chickenpox infection. It mostly occurs in older adults. Without proper treatment, it can cause long lasting pain, nerve damage, and even permanent eye damage. Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox, but someone with shingles can give chickenpox to other people. A vaccine which can prevent shingles is recommended to all people over age 50

What are the causes of shingles?

Shingles occurs only in people that have had chickenpox. After the chickenpox has subsided, the virus remains in the body and stays dormant for many years in the nerve tissue. For unknown reasons, sometime the virus awakens and develops into shingles. Adults over age 50 are the most susceptible, but other risk factors are a weakened immune system due to high stress, illness or injury or taking medication that suppresses the immune system.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles are usually more painful than chickenpox but itch less. Typically it starts with a small patch of skin feeling very sensitive, sometimes with a burning, itching or tingling sensation. This stage usually lasts between 1 to 3 days, but sometimes lasts longer. The sensation may be constant or it may be intermittent. This patch of skin then develops a rash, which quickly becomes covered with painful blisters. The blisters last between 2 and 3 weeks, but until the blisters scab over and heal, the chickenpox virus can be spread to other people. Other symptoms include a fever or headache. Additionally, pain may linger well after the blisters have healed, sometimes for months or even years. If shingles develops near the eyes, it can cause light sensitivity and blurred vision or even blindness.

What is the treatment and diagnosis?

Shingles do not usually require hospitalization, and can usually be diagnosed with an examination by a dermatologist. Fluid from a blister can also be sent to a laboratory to confirm a shingles diagnosis.

Treatment is most effective if started within 3 days of seeing the rash, and prompt treatment may prevent long-term nerve damage and pain. Anti-viral medications can also shorten the course of the illness and reduce symptoms. The doctors at Dermatology of Seattle strongly recommend seeking immediate treatment to prevent long term complications like lingering pain or numbness. In addition to anti-viral drugs, pain relievers are often prescribed and in cases of severe pain, direct injections of anesthetics. If the blisters become infected, antibiotics may also be necessary and can help prevent scarring.