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Shingles: A Serious and Painful Disease

I spent 22 years in the nursing profession, and I enjoy writing about medical issues. I'm also interested in history, genealogy, and travel.

What causes shingles, what are the symptoms, and how is it treated?

What causes shingles, what are the symptoms, and how is it treated?

Shingles From the Chicken Pox Virus

Shingles is a viral infection causing a painful rash that looks like a band of blisters that can appear in many places on your body. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at a higher risk for shingles because after you have had chicken pox, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain.

In the United States, 9 out of 10 people have had chicken pox. Years later, it may reactivate in the form of shingles. While not life-threatening, Annual incidence worldwide is 80-90 million cases.

About 1 million people in the US get shingles annually, and a person may contract shingles more than once. Shingles is very contagious during the fluid-filled blister phase and spreads through direct contact. Once the blisters crust over, you are no longer contagious.

Rate of Shingles by Age Group

Typical Ages for Getting Shingles

Typical Ages for Getting Shingles

Shingles Overview

The first sign of shingles is usually a burning or tingling pain, or it may be numbness, itch or a burning discomfort in a particular area of the body or face which includes eyes, mouth and ears. It only appears on one side of the body. A rash will appear a few days later. Fluid filled blisters, similar to chicken pox, appear on one side of the body. It can be so painful that a gentle breeze or touch may hurt, but it is not life threatening.

Shingles can occur anywhere on the body, but the most typical site of the rash is a band on the back called a dermatome, which may spread from the back and can reach to the breast bone on the chest only on one side of the body or face. The rash can last up to 30 days, and the symptoms usually disappear when the rash dries up.

Signs and Symptoms

Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, chills, difficulty moving some facial muscles, drooping eyelid, fever and chills, general ill-feeling, genital lesions, headache, hearing loss, joint pain, loss of eye motion, swollen glands, taste problems, and vision problems. It is uncommon to have all these symptoms, but it shows the seriousness of shingles.

Typical signs and symptoms can include:

  • Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
  • Rash is very sensitive to touch
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Itching

Some people also experience:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Feeling tired
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stomach upset