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What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a viral condition that affects nerves and is usually diagnosed after its physical symptoms appear: an unpleasant rash with painful blisters frequently appearing on the skin. Once the rash and blisters have gone, many people still endure intense pain, that can persist for months or years.

Early identification and treatment of shingles can minimize the initial pain and may reduce the chance of persistent, recurring pain.

Shingles may also be referred to as Herpes zoster, or Zoster.

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles is caused by the virus varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that gives us chickenpox as children. Once we recuperate from chickenpox, the virus goes dormant and retreats within nerve cells in the bodies, but doesn’t leave. Seemingly without reason, the virus can become active again and, in adults especially older people, can result in shingles.

In most cases, adults can have the shingle producing VZV virus within their body and won’t get shingles. But, one-fifth of adults who had chickenpox as children will acquire shingles when they are older.

With shingles, the blisters are usually grouped in a certain region of the body, as opposed to being dispersed over the body such as chickenpox. In fact, it is common for the shingles blisters to be visible on one side of the face or body, similar to symptoms of an allergic reaction where something physically touches the body.

The shingles rash is the result of the virus becoming active and moving along the path of a nerve outward toward the skin. The term “shingles” originates from the Latin expression for belt, due to the shape of the rash that is caused when the virus reaches the skin. The rash will oftentimes resemble a belt as it covers one side of the face or body.

Shingles, including the pain and the rash are not indicative of another disease like tuberculosis or cancer. It is a viral disease that is usually not fatal.

Shingles are contagious
The virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles is easily passed from person to person, and therefore both chickenpox and shingles are highly contagious. But, the virus will only produce chickenpox in children who have not been vaccinated. Even when someone is suffering from shingles and a high risk individual touches the shingles rash, the only disease that may be transmitted is chickenpox. Transmission must occur from touching the rash.

Children with shingles should avoid school and should not mix with other children unless the rash is controlled and adequately covered.

Complications from Shingles

The complications from shingles are more serious than the symptoms themselves:
Persistent pain may occur if medication is not taken immediately and subsequent nerve damage is allowed to happen.
Vision problems have been reported in cases where shingles attack happens near an eye. Permanent loss of vision may result.
Skin infections might result from open cuts and sores that come from the shingles rash.
Nervous system problems can occur when nerves in the face are attacked by the shingles virus, and the virus has a path to the spinal column or brain. In rare cases, permanent paralysis or other nervous system disorders may occur.

Who Can Get Shingles

Shingles rash and blistersShingles in Adults
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the United States, shingles is diagnosed approximately 1 million times every year. Over half of those diagnosed with shingles are over 60 years old, and almost half of the reported problems from shingles occur in elderly people.

The increased risk of contracting Shingles is considered a normal part of aging, but people may have a higher risk exposure if they have a weakened immune system or take certain medications, have a chronic disease like cancer, or infections.

Shingles in Children
Children can get shingles, but only if the child has already had chickenpox. The symptoms of shingles in children are similar to symptoms of shingles in adults, including rash but without the painful itching and burning that adults experience.

Shingles in children under age 10 is very rare, and about 5% of shingles cases in the United States occurs in children aged 15 years or less. Over 75% of cases are diagnosed in adults 45 years of age or older.

Following are the symptoms of shingles rash in children:

  • thin band occurring on one side of the face or body
  • initial bumps in small groupings that change to blisters and eventually become large patches of dry, crusty skin
  • rash is more common on the upper abdomen – chest or back

Children with shingles do not have a high fever, nausea or upset stomach like adults often report.

Treatment of Shingles

Preventing shingles
While not exactly a means of treatment, the best approach is to avoid situations where the virus can be contracted. Avoid touching the rash and blisters of an infected person.
Treating shingles with medication
Shingles rash and blisters on skinMedications to combat the the virus are a common course of treatment. Antiviral drugs and corticosteroids can help reduce pain and swelling in the area of the rash and may help prevent other complications from starting.

Treatment of shingles using medications should begin within 3 days of initial symptoms, notably before the pain and burning from the rash. It is important to start taking medications before the rash transitions to blisters. When the symptoms don’t react to oral medication, it will be necessary to take them intravenously.

Other things to reduce pain near the rash include a cold compress or a bath in soothing lotions (colloidal and calamine lotion). Other ideas include getting plenty of bed rest and keeping the skin near the blister area clean and open to the air. While these actions help to relieve pain from the rash and blisters, they do very little to stop the symptoms.

Treatment by Vaccine
Children who haven’t had chickenpox should get the chickenpox vaccine to prevent contracting the virus. Even older children or young adults should be considered for the chickenpox vaccine. Older adults, typically those over 60, can be vaccinated against the virus with the herpes zoster vaccine, which is very similar to the chickenpox vaccine in that it protects from the same virus.

In all cases, consult with your doctor for the best course of treatment.

18 Responses to What Causes Shingles?

  • Evans says:

    Me i started on my shoulder at the line of my bra,I had some reddish I was scatching where by,when tourching was very painful(in toucherble)then inside my shoulder,the bones were extremely painful an controrable after one week I started taking strong pain pill,and the pain started going down,but up to now this is my second week,but I can feel something moving very small between my shoulder & neck, pls I still have pain

    • DeadlyMicrobes says:

      Hi Evans, The pain associated with the rash certainly sounds like shingles but did the doctor diagnose it, and did the doctor prescribe the painkillers?

      Do not scratch the rash as the fluid contained in the blisters has the virus in it, and is contagious until the rash dries and forms a crusty surface.

  • Mr paranoid shingles says:

    My workmate has giant patches of bright red shingles all over on his back .He kept scratching continuously with his bare hands and was sitting beside me. Whatever things that he had touched I unknowingly touched too .
    On that same day I was also having sweet itchiness on my back.It was so nice to scratch my back I was enjoying it.
    I only realized he had shingles when he told me later in private. Now I’m really worried I may have caught his virus by secondary contact. Please I’m having sleepless nights!.

    • DeadlyMicrobes says:

      If your workmate’s shingles are still in the blister stage then direct contact can spread the virus and yes, it is contagious at that point. Once the rash is crusty, it is no longer contagious. I suggest you insist your co-worker keep the rash covered. That is the only way to prevent passing the virus (and rash) to other people.

      Also, do your best to not scratch the rash.

      Please see a doctor if the rash and itchiness persists.

  • Elle sarmiento says:

    Unfortunately, I’m having pain now with shingles, I have should have taken the vaccine when I was back in MD. I’m out of the country, having shingles is awful. The pain is excruciating, it feels like you have been hit badly and the bones in your body where the rashes are hurts so much.
    Im taking pain relievers/anti-convulsants plus neuropathic pain capsules that my doctor prescribed. I was told that Shingles can last for months after the rashes disappear.

  • Martha Whitley says:

    I have shingles and so far not to bad. What can you put on the bumps to help with the itch? And how long can they last?

    • DeadlyMicrobes says:

      If the rash has transitioned to bumps you need something like Prednisone or another corticosteroid. You will definitely need a prescription. Remember to fully take your meds and if the oral medications don’t work you’ll need to take them intravenously.

    • DeadlyMicrobes says:

      Hi Hareem , yes you cannot see viruses. Anyone with shingles needs to see a doctor for treatment of the symptoms. The sooner a doctor is involved, the sooner the symptoms can be suppressed.

  • phammonds says:

    I am experienciencing shingles for the first time in my life. I am 72 yrs old…never had chicken pox but had thyroid cancer & 3 rounds of treatment 3 yrs ago so I assume my vulnerability was due to my weakened immune system. I’ve had very little rash which is drying up well but the pain is excruciating most of the time. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the worst, it stays at least at a 9 most of the time…next to childbirth. Not a joke! I’ve been to the ER & my Dr. & have been given antivirals & lidocaine patches but nothing stronger than Tylenol for this horrible pain. I feel like I’m being treated like I’m over-reacting. Is there anything else prescribed for this unrelenting pain or does everyone that suffers to this extent get the same treatment?

    • DeadlyMicrobes says:

      Hi P. Hammonds, the treatment is always dependent on a patient’s health and medical history. Having the rash drying up is a good thing. The pain can be treated with stronger meds but given that you might have a weakened immune system and formerly having thyroid cancer, your doctor may be reluctant to prescribe anything stronger. Most doctors will be understanding of their patient’s request for stronger pain meds but if not, you can seek a second opinion any time.

  • Yavuz says:

    I had shingles and they didn’t bohter me much at all. My Aunt had had them some years before me and they didn’t bohter her much either. Her husband had them some years before she did and they bohtered him greatly. Genetic I guess. She and I were blood kin and he was only kin by marrying her. I work in a hot factory and I only felt a stinging pain when a drop of sweat got on the shingles. I was of those people that don’t sweat much so I seldom felt pain.I know of no one who got the shingles from me. I treated it like poison ivy. I put Calamine Lotion on it. I was always getting poison ivy and no one else in the family did. Some cases of poison ivy were more bohtersome than others. If I could manage it them I could shingles also.Some people say stress is involved. I do not remember that time as being more stressful than any other. Some say the immune system is weakened but I wasn’t sick or weak at that time. I have suffered some stressful and sicken times since that time throughout the years and have never been bohtered by shingles again.If you get it you get it and only God knows why.?

  • Sayaka says:

    shingles is also an airborne trnaimstted disease. If you have it stay away from other people. keep yourself covered. it is highly contagious. stay away especially from pregnant women.Shingles is a form of the Herpes virus, as is the chicken pox and cold sores, another strain is common in the genital area. All are trnaimstted by contact. If you have cold sores and give oral sex, your partner will get genital herpes. If you have genital herpes and receive oral sex , your partner will get oral herpes.chicken pox by the way is also trnaimstted via airborne spores, not contact as most believe. please stay away from anyone trying to conceive male and female, and anyone who is pregnant.The herpes virus never goes away out of your body, it is always there once you contract it lying dormant in your spinal fluid, it will “attack” you (outbreak) during periods of stress, low immune system , exposures to cold, heat , wind ect at various times in your life. Some people may have only one outbreak in there entire lives, others may have frequent outbreaks.shingles is a direct result of having previously had the chickenpox, yes you can transmit shingles to a person who has had the chicken pox! So if you rub neosporin on somebodies shingles, you may not experience a outbreak shortly after, it is a virus and can lie dormant in your body (spinal fluid) for weeks to years before you experience an outbreak. kinda like HIV see So you see somebody else besides God knows why:)P.S. There is a vaccination available to persons who have never had the chickenpox.Can I have the ten points please????

    • Martha says:

      I’m afraid you have been misinformed shingles are only contagious through touch and then only when the blisters are present.

    • bruce says:

      You are a crackpot. You can’t “catch” shingles from someone else. You can catch chicken pots from some who has shingles only if you have never had chicken pox or been vacinated against chicken pox. Also, it is not airborne. Your ignorant unfounded claims may be airborn however. Stop spreading stupid disorder. Read a book. Negative ten experience points.

    • DeadlyMicrobes says:

      Sayaka, We agree with Martha and Bruce. Please read the article and understand that the virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles can be transmitted from person to person, only by touch and only when blisters are present.

      However, as the article states: “Even when someone is suffering from shingles and a high risk individual touches the shingles rash, the only disease that may be transmitted is chickenpox.” So Bruce is right, shingles cannot be “caught” by touching an infected person.

      Remember that the virus can be inside you, dormant for many years. Your best defense is to know the symptoms, understand when you’re in a high risk group and be prepared for treatment.

      Thanks to all for the comments.

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