What are Shingles?

The word shingles comes from the Latin word cingulum, meaning girdle or belt.  Shingles gets its name from the rash following the path of the nerve endings. Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it most often appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or the right side of your torso.

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Almost one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime. There are roughly one million cases reported in the United States annually.  Even though you may be living a healthy lifestyle, you could still be at risk.

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.

While it isn’t a life-threatening condition, shingles can be very painful. Vaccines can help reduce the risk of shingles, while early treatment can help shorten a shingles infection and lessen the chance of complications.

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Symptoms of Shingles

Pain is the most common symptom of shingles.  This can be a constant dull, burning, or gnawing pain, or sharp, stabbing pain that comes and goes.  There may also be a blistering skin rash.  This usually appears in one or more distinct bands, called dermatomes. It may also appear on the face in a band, or break out on a quarter of the face.  These dermatomes correspond to a single sensory nerve. This is why infection causes isolated skin lesions, rather than a body-wide rash, and nerve pain.

The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body. These signs and symptoms may include:

  • Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Itching
  • a headache or feeling generally unwell
  • malaise
  • nausea
  • muscle pain and weakness
  • chills
  • upset stomach
  • difficulties with urination
  • Fatigue
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes)
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to light

Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some, it can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, it can sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs or kidneys. Some people experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash.

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Rarely, shingles can lead to pneumonia, brain inflammation, or encephalitis, or death. This usually happens in people who have an impaired immune system.

What causes Shingles?

The reason the virus suddenly becomes active again is not clear. Often only one attack occurs. But it may be due to lowered immunity to infections as you grow older. Shingles is more common in older adults and in people who have weakened immune systems or had chickenpox before the age of 1.

After you get chickenpox, the virus remains inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Shingles occurs after the virus becomes active again in these nerves after many years. Many people had such a mild case of chickenpox that they do not realize they have had the infection.

If an adult or child has direct contact with the shingles rash and did not have chickenpox as a child or get the chickenpox vaccine, they can develop chickenpox, not shingles.

What treatment is available?

There is currently no way to eliminate the shingles virus from the body.  However, there are ways to ease symptoms:

  • Keep the rash dry and clean to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing for comfort.
  • Avoid rub-on antibiotic creams or adhesive dressings, as they can slow the healing process.
  • If the rash needs to be covered, a non-adherent dressing should be used to prevent aggravating the skin.
  • Products such as Calamine lotion, which are available online, can soothe and relieve the itching.
  • Antihistamines can sometimes help prevent itching at night.

A doctor may prescribe painkilling medication.

In some cases, antiviral medicine may be prescribed to help stop the virus multiplying, and to reduce severity and duration.