If you’re aged 50 or older, your doctor may recommend you receive the shingles vaccine. In many cases, this is the only time that people hear about this condition. About 1 in 3 people in the U.S. will develop this condition, which is also known as herpes zoster. With more than a million cases of shingles reported each year, it’s important for patients to understand just what it is, how it’s diagnosed, and what treatments are available. Keep reading to learn more about this common condition and how your trusted local U.S. Dermatology Partners team can help.
What is the Shingles Virus?
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a virus that impacts the nerves. Before you even see the first signs of a rash, you’ll likely experience burning, tingling, numbness, itching, and even shooting pain. The most common symptom is a painful, blistering rash that appears in the area above the nerves that are impacted by the virus. Most people who get this condition are 50 years of age or older, have compromised immune systems, or take an immune-suppressing medication regularly. However, any person who has had chickenpox can develop this condition at any age.
According to Dr. Hans M. Sander of U.S. Dermatology Partners Jollyville in Austin, TX., “Even though most people think of shingles as a skin condition, it’s actually a virus that attacks the nerves, and while it’s more common in adults over 50, even kids can get shingles. It’s important for everyone to understand what the shingles virus is and get treatment for the condition right away to avoid unnecessary short and long term pain.”
What Causes Shingles?
The cause of shingles is the varicella zoster virus (VZV) that causes chickenpox. After someone has recovered from chickenpox, the virus remains in their bodies in an inactive or dormant state, meaning there are no symptoms present. No one knows for sure why the virus can reactivate later in life, leading to a shingles outbreak, but those who already have compromised immune systems are at greater risk.
How is Shingles Diagnosed?
Typically, the visible rashes and blisters accompanied by one or more other symptoms like chills and fever as well as a history of chickenpox are enough to ensure an accurate diagnosis. If there’s any doubt, your doctor may also take a culture or scraping from the blisters. In many cases, your general physician will refer you to a dermatologist or work in partnership with a dermatologist to ensure you receive treatment for both the underlying cause of shingles and the adverse skin effects of the condition.
Warning Signs of Shingles
Every person’s experience is different, but the most common warning signs of shingles include:
- Flu-like symptoms – before the tell-tale rash so often associated with this condition, many patients experience flu-like symptoms, including sneezing, coughing, and even fever.
- Tingling sensations – these tingling sensations typically occur in the extremities or over the areas where rashes will later appear, and many people also report itching or burning sensations.
- Nausea – upset stomach, loss of appetite, and stomach cramps are common leading up to the outbreak of the shingles rash.
- Headaches and migraines – many patients experience severe headaches leading up to and during an outbreak. Unfortunately, many people continue to struggle with chronic headaches even after the virus has run its course.
- Chills – chills or fluctuation between feeling hot and cold may occur as the immune system tries to fight off the virus.
- Eye health concerns – many patients experience sensitivity to light prior to and during a breakout. Conjunctivitis (pink eye) is also commonly associated with shingles.
- Body aches – aches, pain, and muscle cramps are all common leading up to and during an outbreak.
- Rash – the most common warning sign is the shingles rash. These rashes appear as a painful, fluid-filled blister-like rash pattern directly connected to the nerve roots. They most often appear on the neck, back, chest, buttocks, and legs.
How Long Does a Shingles Outbreak Last?
Most cases of shingles last between three and five weeks. While every case is different, most people first experience itching, burning or tingling for a few days before the first signs of the tell-tale red rash appears. The rash then becomes fluid-filled and painful, which can last for 7 to 14 days before the blister begins to dry out. It can take several weeks for the rash to completely dry out, scab over, and heal.
After the outbreak clears up, you still may not be done with shingles. Unfortunately, many shingles sufferers develop a chronic condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This long-lasting discomfort is usually localized over the area where the rash appeared. PHN can go on for years, and for many patients, this is the most painful and worst part of the condition. Other health concerns that are often associated with shingles include conjunctivitis and other eye issues, bacterial infections due to poorly healing, eye damage, and hearing loss. If you notice any pain, swelling, or other issues after your shingles outbreak clears up, call a doctor right away.
Can I get Shingles More than Once?
Like chicken pox, most people only get shingles once, but there are reported cases where patients have experienced two, three, or more outbreaks.
Can Shingles be Cured?
Unfortunately, shingles is a virus, which means there is not a cure for this condition. However, there is a preventive vaccine available that significantly reduces the risk of developing this condition. Vaccination is usually only recommended for adults 50 years old and older.
What Treatments are Used for Shingles?
In order to limit your risk for long term pain and damage, it’s recommended that you reach out to your dermatologist right away. Receiving treatment within the first five days of shingles treatment can significantly reduce your chances for PHN and other adverse long term health effects. Depending on your condition, the dermatologist recommended treatment may include the following:
- Pain relief – prescription and/or over the counter pain medicines may be used to help relieve pain during and after a shingles outbreak.
- Anti-viral medication – this medication is only effective when prescribed within 72 hours of the first signs of rash.
- Nerve blocks – these injections are targeted to relieve pain in specific areas, and they are usually only recommended for severe pain.
- Corticosteroids – these medicines are taken in pill form in combination with anti-viral medicines, but many physicians and dermatologist do not prescribe corticosteroids because they can actually cause rashes to spread more quickly.
Many patients choose to forego treatment, and the shingles outbreak will clear up on its own for most. However, the process can be lengthy and very painful. Even with professional intervention, a shingles outbreak can take several weeks to clear up. During that time, you can take a few steps to improve your comfort and manage symptoms, including:
- Get plenty of rest. Your body heals as you sleep, so make sure you get plenty of sleep and avoid especially stressful or taxing situations.
- Use ice packs, cold compresses, or cool washcloths to relieve pain and swelling around the rashes. You can also take a cool oatmeal bath to jumpstart the healing process and improve your comfort.
- Use calamine lotion, which includes a combination of zinc and ferric oxide, to dry out the blisters. This topical ointment is often recommended to relieve itching and promote the healing of blisters.
- Keep your mind off the pain. Watch your favorite TV show, talk with friends and family, read, put together a puzzle, or work on a hobby.
- Wear light, loose-fitting clothing made from natural fibers. This will limit irritation, improve your comfort, and promote faster healing.
Visit the U.S. Dermatology Partners to Learn More
At U.S. Dermatology Partners, our teams of specialists are here to help with treatment planning for both the short and long term effects of shingles. We can help you get out of pain and make a complete recovery more quickly. When you’re ready to get started, complete our online form. One of our local team members will be in touch with you right away to answer your questions and get you in the office to start your shingles treatment plan as soon as possible.
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