What are the symptoms of shingles?


Many people know that shingles is a painful disease that's related to chickenpox. But what exactly is shingles, and how can you spot its symptoms?

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful, burning rash. It's caused by the Varicella-Zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person gets chickenpox, the virus lays dormant in the body. If the virus is reactivated — usually from stress or a lowered immune system in older adults — it causes shingles.

Shingles is usually characterized by an itchy, painful rash that appears on just one side of the body. The rash typically wraps around one side of the torso, from the middle of the back toward the chest. It can also appear around the eye. The rash forms blisters, which then scab over and clear up after a few weeks. Other early symptoms can include headache, light sensitivity and flu-like symptoms without a fever.

Shingles progresses in three phases. During the first phase, the area around the affected nerves may feel pain, a burning sensation, tingling and/or numbness. Flu-like symptoms such has chills, stomachache or diarrhea may appear as or just before the rash becomes visible. The lymph nodes may also swell and become tender.

Next is the active phase, during which the rash appears and forms blisters. Usually the rash appears on the back or chest, but if it appears on the face, it can threaten eyesight if not treated promptly. The rash comes with piercing, needling pain. Over the course of five days, the blisters may break open, ooze and crust. The rash usually heals within two to four weeks. Some people never get a rash, or only get a mild rash. 

Finally comes the chronic pain phase, which can last anywhere from a month to several years. During this phase, the person may experience sensitivity, aching, burning and stabbing pain in the area where the rash once was. This phase most commonly affects the forehead or chest, and it can make daily activities difficult. It can even lead to feelings of depression.

There is no cure for shingles, but your healthcare provider can prescribe antiviral drugs to speed healing and reduce the risk of complications. The best way to prevent shingles from spreading is to keep the rash clean and covered, since the virus spreads through contact with blisters. 

While most people only get shingles once, it is possible to get it two or three times. Adults over the age of 60 should consider getting the shingles vaccine, which reduces the risk of contracting shingles and experiencing the nerve pain that comes with it. 

If you think you may have shingles, set up a visit with a Goshen Physicians primary care provider today.