What is Shingles?

Mary McMahon

Shingles is a viral infection which is often accompanied with a very distinctive rash. In addition to being quite painful, shingles can cause serious complications which may have a long term impact on the patient's vision and nervous system. A case of shingles is generally easy to recognize when the rash emerges, and there are a number of ways to treat shingles so that it will be less severe. If you experience a shingles rash on your face, it is extremely important to see a doctor.

Shingles begins with the chicken pox virus.
Shingles begins with the chicken pox virus.

In order to have shingles, a patient must first have had chickenpox. After a chickenpox infection, the virus remains latent in the nervous system. When it is reactivated due to stress, a declining immune system, or another cause, shingles emerges. It starts as a painful nervous system condition; the patient may experience a sense of tingling, sensitivity to touch, and itching for several days before the shingles rash appears.

Shingles is usually identified by blisters and a rash appearing on one side of the torso or face area.
Shingles is usually identified by blisters and a rash appearing on one side of the torso or face area.

The rash spreads along the lines of the nervous system, forming distinct bands. The skin begins to look reddish and irritated, and then it starts to blister. From the moment the rash appears until the blisters pop and crust over, the patient is considered contagious. People who have never had chickenpox will get chickenpox if they are exposed to the patient. After several weeks, the rash dissipates, although the patient may experience painful nervous system symptoms in the long term.

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While the rash is present, the pain and itching can be treated with compresses and soothing baths. In some cases, antiviral drugs will be used to shorten the duration of the rash. These drugs must be taken with 72 hours of the emergence of the rash to be effective. For extreme inflammation and pain, corticosteroids may be used. It is important to keep the skin clean and dry, to reduce the risk of skin infection and serious inflammation, and people should avoid contact contaminated clothing and bedsheets. Should a shingles rash appear on the face, aggressive treatment is required, since it can cause ocular damage.

Shingles is also known as herpes zoster, a reference to the virus which causes it. A vaccination for shingles is available, but exposure to someone infected with chickenpox may help to prevent the emergence of shingles as well. Doctors hypothesize that exposure to the chickenpox promotes antibody formation, thus helping the body to fight the virus before it stimulates a shingles infection.

Shingles can spread via bedsheets.
Shingles can spread via bedsheets.

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Discussion Comments


@Lostnfound: I poked around on the Internet, and the most reliable research I found said the vaccine reduced the chances of getting shingles by 50 percent, and if the patient got shingles anyway, often helped reduce the duration and severity.

The main thing is not to fool around about going to the doctor if you think you've got shingles. Go ahead and go if you suspect it. You can help the pain with lidocaine patches, but they’re by prescription only. Get to the doctor. Otherwise, you'll be in for a week of misery that is much worse than it needed to be.


I've seen the ads for shingles vaccines on TV. Does anyone know how effective they are?

It may be an old wives' tale, but the version I heard was that your chances of getting shingles were inversely related to the severity of your chicken pox outbreak. If that's the case, I'll never get shingles. My mom is a retired lab tech, has worked in hospitals and doctor's offices, and said I had the worst case of chicken pox she had ever seen. I know I felt like utter crap for a week. Never want to go through that ever again!

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