Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral disease that manifests as a painful skin rash with blisters. It develops when the chicken pox virus reactivates in the body, often for unknown reasons.
Anyone who has had chicken pox is at risk for developing shingles. About 20 percent of those who have had chicken pox will get shingles—most develop shingles only once.
It is not clear what reactivates or “awakens” the virus. However the following are thought to cause outbreaks:
- Compromised immunity
- Old age
Shingles can also be contagious. Though not as contagious as chicken pox, shingles can be transmitted through direct skin contact if blisters break. Because of this, people with shingles should not interact with pregnant women, small children or the immunocompromised.
Shingles typically causes more pain and less itching than chicken pox. A person may feel burning, itching, tingling or extreme sensitivity on the skin. These usually last for one to three days, sometimes more, before a red rash appears in the same area. A shingles rash usually occurs on only one side of the body.
To diagnose shingles, a dermatologist looks at the appearance of the skin and asks how the rash developed. To confirm the diagnosis, a dermatologist may scrape skin cells from a blister for examination under a microscope. Also, the blister fluid containing the virus can be sent to a laboratory for special testing.
Shingles usually clears on its own in a few weeks and seldom recurs. A dermatologist may prescribe an oral medication to help. While shingles is clearing, pain relievers can help ease the discomfort, and cool compresses may provide soothing relief.
The most common problem of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia, which is pain, numbness, itching and tingling that last long after the rash clears. Oral pain medications can help relieve the pain.
A shingles vaccine has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for people ages 60 and older who have never had shingles. In one study, this immunization decreased the incidence of shingles by more than 50 percent.
If you or someone you know may be at risk for singles, schedule an appointment with a Water’s Edge Dermatology practitioner.