Shingles impacts over 1 million people in the United States annually and will infect 1-in-3 people during their lifetimes. So what is Shingles virus and the Shingles causes? The condition is known for causing a rash, which is the most common symptom but can also lead to long-term pain that lasts well beyond the rash healing.
What is Shingles Virus?
Shingles is better known as herpes zoster. The virus is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox will have the herpes zoster virus in their body. The virus remains dormant in the body and may or may not present later on in life.
The virus will remain dormant in a person’s:
- Nerve tissue
- Near the brain and spinal cord
If the virus decides to reactivate, it’s considered Shingles. Vaccines are available and can help reduce Shingles causes, but the condition isn’t life-threatening. Instead, the condition is painful and can cause pain even after all of the other symptoms subside.
How Shingles Spreads
If you have never had chickenpox, you can get shingles from someone who has open blisters. The blisters are filled with a fluid that will help spread the virus from one person to another through direct contact with the fluid.
Scabbed blisters are not known to cause the spread of shingles.
Well-covered blisters are the best way to stop the spread of shingles. It's important to make note that the virus doesn’t spread through nasal secretions or saliva. There are very rare cases when the virus spreads through secretions or saliva, but it’s highly unlikely to occur. A person that coughs or sneezes will not spread the virus to another person.
If the virus is spread, it will be spread as chickenpox and only is considered shingles if the virus reactivates. A person cannot be reinfected with chickenpox nor shingles because the varicella-zoster virus remains in the body forever. In the event that they do get shingles shortly after, it’s from the reactivation of the virus that they already had.
Shingles causes always rely on the chickenpox virus, but the reason that the virus reactivates can vary, from age to weak immune system.
Symptoms of Shingles
A diagnosis will help determine if you’re infected with the virus or not. The most common symptoms of shingles are:
- Blisters. The presence of blisters is the most common symptom. The blisters are raised off of the skin, filled with fluid, and will often begin to ooze. When the oozing begins, it will eventually crust over and leave a scab behind. Shingles will often be present in only one area of the body, unlike chickenpox, which can be in different areas at once. The torso is the most common area the rash appears.
- Pain. Shingles can be very painful because the virus will travel along the body’s nerve path. The virus will cause tingling and pain, and a lot of sufferers can’t describe the weird feeling that they’re experiencing. Sometimes, the pain is a slight tingle, while others will experience a burning or itching sensation. Sensitivity is also common.
- Rash. A few days after you begin experiencing pain, a rash with blisters will often form. The rash is red and sensitive to the touch. The rash may also be itchy.
While these are the main symptoms listed by the Mayo Clinic, there are some less common symptoms that may present. These may include:
- Light sensitivity
It's not uncommon for a person to suspect the pain is a symptom of potential organ damage or disease, including issues with the heart, kidneys or lungs. There are also some individuals that will have pain and never experience a rash.
The rash often wraps around the left or right side of the torso. Treatment may not be required, but there are times when you’ll want to contact a doctor even if you’re in good health. A few of the times when it’s recommended that a person seek medical assistance for shingles are:
- Widespread, painful rash
- You suffer from a weakened immune system
- You’re 60 years of age or older
- The rash is near the eye
When the rash is near the eye or face, it can lead to permanent eye damage if treatment isn’t sought.
The virus isn’t life-threatening, although it can be very painful. If you do exhibit a rash on one side of your face, it’s important to call a doctor immediately. Otherwise, the treatment options are very mild and may include:
- Antiviral drugs
Antiviral medications are the most common and are used to help reduce complication risks and improve healing. Multiple drugs are commonly used to treat shingles, including Acyclovir, Famciclovir, or Valacyclovir.
Your doctor will look at your medical history and current medications to determine the best form of treatment for you.
Natural Shingles Remedies
People suffering from shingles can often use natural remedies, primarily supplements, to try and alleviate the symptoms that they’re experiencing. A few of the remedies that may help are:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
Itching and irritation can be soothed with a cool bath using a cup or two of colloidal oatmeal. Add the oatmeal to lukewarm water and soak in it for up to 20 minutes. Avoid using hot water, which can make your symptoms and blisters even worse.
There are a lot of remedies available, but when suffering from severe pain, medication may be the best option.
When is Shingles Most Common?
Shingles can occur at any time, but it’s most common in people between the ages of 60 and 70. In fact, by the time a person is in their 80s, there’s a 50% chance that they’ve had the virus reemerge already.
Typically, the virus will leave the dormant stage when the immune system is weak. A person that is stressed or sick will often have the virus reactivate.
What’s the Outlook for People With Shingles?
The majority of people will experience short-term pain and will make a complete recovery. Thankfully, it’s very unlikely that a person will have shingles more than once in their life. While the outbreak is short, the condition will often clear in a month.
In some cases, the nerve pain can last for months.
The older the person, the more likely it is that the symptoms will be long-lasting. Younger sufferers will often show no signs of the virus when the blisters have healed.
What Complications Should I Be Concerned About?
Shingles is relatively painful, but it’s not deadly. The complications that are most serious are rare, but they’re a concern for older sufferers. These complications may include:
- Long-term nerve pain, or postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). The condition infects 10% to 18% of sufferers and the risk increases with age.
- Hearing problems are very rare but do occur.
- Pneumonia can occur and is serious, especially for older individuals with a compromised immune system.
- Brain inflammation can occur, which can lead to facial paralysis if the nerves are affected.
- Vision loss may occur if the virus is close to the eyes and you fail to seek medical attention.
In very rare cases, a person may die. If you have a compromised immune system or are in a high-risk group and have a skin rash that you assume is shingles, seek medical attention to lower your risk of serious complications.
What Should I Expect When Going to my Doctor for Shingles?
Doctors will ask a battery of questions and try to diagnose your condition. There are times when the symptoms are the sign of another condition and not shingles. A visual inspection and a variety of questions will be asked by the doctor, including:
- Have you ever had chickenpox?
- When did you first notice your symptoms?
- Has anything made your symptoms better or worse?
You should ask your doctor questions, too. Ask how long your symptoms are expected to last and what to do if your symptoms do not improve. Speeding up the diagnosis is also possible if you write down a description of your symptoms, medical issues that you had in the past, and have a list of all medications and supplements that you take.
Can I Reduce the Risk of Spreading Shingles?
If you want to reduce the risk of infecting others with the virus, you can by following these recommendations:
- Wash the rash and keep it covered so that no one comes in contact with it.
- Try to not touch the blisters and wash your hands if you do.
- Avoid contact with pregnant women and/or babies to reduce the risk of spread. Women that do contact chickenpox when pregnant have a higher risk of babies with birth defects and an increased risk of pneumonia.
- Avoid contact with anyone deemed a “high risk,” which will include children, babies, and elderly persons that have not had chickenpox.
Vaccinations are available that can lower the risk of shingles. Chickenpox vaccinations can also help stop the spread of chickenpox and lower the number of adults that experience reactivation.
Your doctor will be able to determine if you’re a good candidate for the Shingles vaccine.