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Everything You Need to Know About Shingles

shingles on woman's torso
April 29, 2024

Shingles is a viral infection that can cause a painful rash anywhere on your body. About 1 million people in the United States get shingles each year. The risk of getting shingles increases as you get older. This viral infection isn’t usually life threatening, but it can be very painful. Shingles can also cause permanent damage to the eye including blindness. Keep reading to find out more about shingles, including its causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

Causes of Shingles

Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella zoster virus. This virus belongs to a group called herpes viruses, and it is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Approximately 10 percent of people who have had chickenpox will later develop shingles. After the chickenpox infection clears, the varicella zoster virus moves into the nerve tissues near the spinal cord and brain, and it stays in your body for the rest of your life. Years or decades later, the virus may reactivate as shingles. When the virus “wakes up,” it travels along nerve fibers to your skin where it causes shingles, also known as herpes zoster. The exact reason for shingles is unclear, but it is more common in older adults and individuals with weakened immune systems.

Symptoms of Shingles

shingles rash on arm

Before a shingles rash appears, you may experience some early signs for several days. Some people have itching, pain, or tingling in the area where the shingles rash will develop. A fever is also a possible early sign before the rash appears. Shingles usually affects only a small section on one side of the body, and symptoms may include:

  • A red rash
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Burning, pain, or tingling
  • Itching
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach

The pain caused by shingles can be intense and, depending on the location, can sometimes even be mistaken for problems with the kidneys, heart, or lungs. Some people may experience shingles pain without ever developing a rash. However, in most cases, the shingles rash develops as a stripe of blisters that wrap around the left or right side of the torso. In some cases, the rash may occur around one eye or on one side of the face or neck.

Is Shingles Contagious?

If you have shingles, you can pass the varicella zoster virus to anyone who has never had chickenpox or has not been vaccinated. The virus typically spreads through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. You remain contagious until all the sores have crusted over. If a person who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine gets infected with the shingles virus, the infection will develop as chickenpox, not shingles. Chickenpox can be dangerous for some people, especially newborns, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. It’s best to avoid physical contact with anyone who is susceptible to chickenpox while you are contagious.

How to Treat Shingles

There is currently no cure for shingles, but there are antiviral drugs that can help you heal faster and reduce your risk of complications. These drugs are most effective if taken within three days of starting with a shingles rash, so make sure you see your medical provider as soon as possible. Common antivirals used to fight the shingles virus include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. There are also prescription medications that can help treat shingles symptoms, such as:

valacyclovir antiviral pills

  • Anticonvulsant drugs
  • Medicated lotions
  • Numbing medications
  • Painkillers
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Topical capsaicin patches
  • Steroids
  • Local anesthetics

To relieve pain and itching, you can also try home remedies like cold compresses, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, and ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Most cases of shingles last two to six weeks, and most people only have it once. However, it can come back, typically in people with weakened immune systems.

Shingles Prevention

The best way to prevent shingles is getting a shingles vaccine. The Shingrix vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 and is recommended for people age 50 or older, whether they’ve had shingles or not. This vaccine is also recommended for individuals age 19 and older who have weakened immune systems due to medication or disease. The Shingrix vaccine is given in two doses that are two to six months apart. Getting the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get shingles, but it will likely reduce the severity and duration of the disease and lower your risk of complications.

Here at Phipps Pharmacy, we want to help you live your healthiest life. That’s why one of the pharmacy services we offer is providing immunizations, including the shingles vaccine. Stop by one of our Phipps Pharmacy locations to take control of your health and prevent unwanted disease.