Shingles is a painful skin condition that appears in a band or strip on the skin surface, generally on one side of the body. It is a common problem in older adults and is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus. Though it is an uncomfortable and unsightly problem, people generally get it only once.
Shingles and Chickenpox
Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates and begins to reproduce. The varicella zoster virus that is acquired when people get the chickenpox can remain dormant in nerve roots for many years. Though scientists do not know exactly why the virus reactivates, they do know that some medications, injury or stress can cause the virus to become active again.
Who Gets Shingles?
Shingles generally affects people with weak immune systems, such as the elderly or ill. You cannot catch shingles from another person, but there is a small chance that someone who has never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine can catch the virus from a person with an active case of shingles.
Symptoms of Shingles.
A shingles outbreak occurs in stages. In the first stage, you may feel sensitive to light and have a slight headache. You can think you are getting the flu, but no fever occurs. Then, the rash develops. A small strip or band reddens and breaks out in fluid-filled blisters. The blisters then break and crust over. These scabs may take 2 to 4 weeks to completely heal, and they may leave scars. You may feel generally ill or dizzy. Some people get no rash at all or just a slight rash.
Shingles cannot always be diagnosed by a visual examination of the rash. Sometimes, the rash can be confused with other skin conditions or insect bites. Shingles rashes tend to occur along nerve pathways from the spine. Previous infection with chickenpox helps the physician to determine if a rash is shingles. An indirect immunofluorescence stain performed on cells taken from lesions will give a definitive diagnosis.
Complications of Shingles
Shingles can progress to a more serious level in which changes in vision, lingering pain, numbness and secondary infections of the skin. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your physician immediately for further medical treatment.
The Shingles Vaccine
A vaccine is available to avoid the problem of shingles. People over the age of 60 should get the vaccine to avoid the complications that can occur from shingles infections. This vaccine is usually given to those over the age of 50 as part of routine medical care and immunizations.