Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection of a nerve and surrounding skin. The varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox, causes this disease. You can find more information below.
What is shingles?
Shingles , also known as night burn , is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it usually appears as a single strip of blisters that covers the left or right side of the torso.
Shingles is caused by the chickenpox-zoster virus , the same virus that causes chickenpox . After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in the nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus can reactivate as shingles.
While not a life-threatening condition, shingles can be very painful. While vaccines can help reduce the risk of shingles, early treatment can help shorten the shingles infection and reduce the chance of complications.
What causes shingles?
Shingles (night burn) is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has chickenpox can develop shingles. After chickenpox has healed, the virus can enter the nervous system and lie dormant for years. Eventually, it can reactivate along the nerve pathways to your skin and produce shingles. However, not everyone with chickenpox develops shingles.
The cause of shingles is unclear. However, it may be due to decreased immunity to infections as we age. Shingles is more common in older adults and people with compromised immune systems.
Chickenpox-zoster is part of a group of viruses called herpes viruses , which includes the viruses that cause herpes and genital herpes. For this reason, shingles is also known as herpes zoster . But the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles is not the virus responsible for herpes or genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection .
Is shingles contagious?
A person with shingles (night burn) can pass the chickenpox-zoster virus to anyone who is not immune to chickenpox. This usually occurs through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. Once infected, the person develops chickenpox but not shingles.
Chickenpox can be dangerous for some people. Until your shingles blisters blister, you are contagious and should avoid physical contact with people who have not yet had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, especially those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, and newborns.
Who is at risk?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles (night burn). Most adults in the United States had chickenpox as children before the introduction of the routine childhood vaccine that now protects against chickenpox.
Factors that can increase your risk of developing shingles include:
- Being over 50: Shingles is most common in people older than 50. The risk increases with age. Some experts estimate that half of people 80 and older will get shingles.
- Having certain diseases: Diseases that weaken your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, can increase your risk of shingles.
- Getting cancer treatment: Radiation or chemotherapy can reduce your resistance to diseases and can trigger shingles.
- Taking certain medications: Things like medications designed to prevent transplant rejection, long-term use of steroids like prednisone can increase your risk of shingles.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Shingles (night burn) symptoms usually only affect a small part of one side of your body. These symptoms may include:
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
- sensitivity to touch
- Red rash that starts a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that open and crust
Some people also experience:
- light sensitivity
Pain is often the first sign of shingles, and it can be intense for some. Depending on the location of the pain, it can sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs, or kidneys. Some people experience shingles pain without developing a rash.
Most commonly, the shingles rash develops as a strip of blisters that covers the left or right side of your body. Sometimes the shingles rash appears around one eye, on one side of the neck or face.
When should you see a doctor?
If you suspect shingles (night burn) you should contact your doctor immediately, especially if:
- If pain and rash occur near the eye (if left untreated, this infection can lead to permanent eye damage)
- you are 60 years of age or older (this significantly increases your risk of complications)
- If you or someone in your family has a weakened immune system (due to cancer, medications, or chronic illness)
- If the rash is widespread and painful
How is shingles diagnosed?
Shingles (night burn) is usually diagnosed based on a history of pain on one side of your body, with the rash and blisters visible. Your doctor may also take a sample of tissue or blisters for examination in the laboratory ( biopsy ).
How is shingles treated?
There is no cure for shingles (night burn), but prompt treatment with prescription antiviral medications can speed recovery and reduce your risk of complications. These drugs include:
Shingles can cause severe pain, so your doctor may also prescribe:
- capsaicin topical patch
- anticonvulsants such as gabapentin
- Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline
- Numbing agents, such as lidocaine, delivered through a cream, gel, spray, or skin patch
- narcotic drugs such as codeine
- An injection containing corticosteroids and local anesthetics
Shingles usually lasts for two to six weeks. Most people get shingles only once, but it’s possible to get it twice or more.
Remember, your doctor will decide which medicine to take and how.
How is shingles transmitted?
Taking a cool bath or applying a cool, wet compress to your blisters can help relieve itching and pain. You should also try to reduce the amount of stress in your life, if possible.
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Can shingles be prevented?
Two vaccines can help prevent shingles (night burn). These are the chickenpox vaccine and the shingles vaccine.
The chickenpox vaccine (Varivax) has become a routine childhood vaccine to prevent chickenpox. The vaccine is also recommended for adults who have never had chickenpox. Although the vaccine does not guarantee that you will not get chickenpox or shingles, it can reduce your chances of complications and reduce the severity of the disease.
People who want to get the shingles vaccine have two options: Zostavax and Shingrix.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006, Zostavax has been shown to protect against shingles for nearly five years. It is a live vaccine, usually given as a single injection in the upper arm.
Shingrix was approved by the FDA in 2017 and is an alternative to Zostavax. Studies show that Shingrix provides protection against shingles for more than five years. It is a non-live vaccine made from a virus component and is given in two doses, with two to six months between doses.
Shingrix is approved and recommended for people 50 years of age and older, including those who have taken Zostavax before. Zostavax is not recommended until age 60.
The most common side effects of both shingles vaccines are redness, pain, tenderness, swelling at the injection site, itching, and headaches.
As with the chickenpox vaccine, the shingles vaccine does not guarantee that you will not get shingles. However, this vaccine will likely reduce the course and severity of the disease and reduce your risk of postherpetic neuralgia .
The shingles vaccine is used only as a prevention strategy. It is not currently intended to treat people with the disease. You should talk to your doctor about which option is right for you.
Complications of shingles
Complications of shingles (night burn) may include:
- Postherpetic neuralgia: For some people, shingles pain persists long after the blisters clear. This condition is known as postherpetic neuralgia and occurs when damaged nerve fibers send mixed and exaggerated pain messages from your skin to your brain.
- Vision loss: Shingles in or around the eye ( ophthalmic shingles ) can cause painful eye infections that can cause vision loss.
- Neurological problems: Depending on which nerves are affected, shingles can cause inflammation of the brain ( encephalitis ), facial paralysis, hearing or balance problems.
- Skin infections: Bacterial skin infections can develop if shingles blisters are not treated properly.