Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 3, 2016

Shingles is a kind of viral infection. This infection brings on a skin rash that is extremely painful. It's also commonly known by the names of herpes zoster and zoster.


Definition & Facts

The typical rash caused by shingles shows up on a single side of either the body or the face. It triggers blisters that turn into scabs within seven to ten days or so. These scabs tend to go away between two to four weeks.

Roughly half of all people in the United States get shingles prior to reaching 80 years old. The infection can happen in any person regardless of age group though it is particularly common in individuals who are between 60 and 80 years in age.

Symptoms & Complaints

If an individual develops shingles, he or she will initially notice discomfort, tingling, itching, or burning occurring on the waist, rib cage, chest, or back. People who have shingles develop red rashes several days after this early discomfort arises. These rashes, which may resemble stripes, form blisters that are full of fluid.

Pain is another early shingles sign, and it is often severe and easily confused with pain caused by other conditions. When some people get shingles pain, they believe incorrectly that it involves their kidneys, lungs or heart. Although shingles is typically more painful than chickenpox, it doesn't usually itch as much as other contagious viral infections.

When people have shingles, they become extremely sensitive to any physical contact. Other symptoms that are possible in people who have shingles include headaches, fever, exhaustion, and light sensitivity.


The varicella zoster virus is responsible for shingles which is the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox in youth. People cannot get shingles unless they have experienced chickenpox in the past. When people heal from chickenpox, the sores go away.

The virus, however, stays permanently and lingers inside of nerve cells. These cells are typically located in the spine. They sometimes switch on again when the virus receives a message that indicates a weakened immune system. When people age, their immune system tends to get weakened which is why shingles is more common in elderly people. It's also more common in people who have weakened immune systems in general, regardless of age.

Some medical procedures and ailments can cause immune systems to become weaker and thus make people more susceptible to shingles including HIV/AIDS and cancer. Certain cancer treatments can also make people more prone to shingles, including both radiation and chemotherapy. If a person has used cortisone for an extended stretch of time, it may make him or her more susceptible to shingles as well.

Diagnosis & Tests

In some cases, doctors can visually assess patients to determine if they have shingles or not. They look for the telltale rashes. If a rash shows up by a nerve path (a "dermatome"), that could be a clue. Other information that can help doctors diagnosis shingles in patients include age, blisters that are similar to chickenpox visually, and reporting of burning pain.

Sometimes isn't always simple to diagnose shingles. If a patient lacks a rash, a doctor may attempt to get to the root of the problem by conducting a blood test. A doctor may also extract tissue scrapings from lesions and then test them for presence of the varicella zoster virus.

Treatment & Therapy

Shingles treatment options tend to be effective for making symptoms more bearable. The treatments do not, however, cure the infection. Although antiviral drugs are capable of making the virus less strong, people usually have to wait until their immune systems can defeat the infection.

If a patient has shingles in an early stage, the doctor may provide a prescription for antiviral medication in pill form. Examples of these medications are famcyclovir, valacyclovir and acyclovir. Doctors sometimes suggest colloidal oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, and wet compresses to manage itching problems.

If a person has been suffering from shingles pain for a lengthy period of time, the doctor may offer treatment via tricyclic antidepressants and numbing patches. The doctor may suggest gabapentin to treat neuropathic pain. A couple other treatment options for patients who have shingles are capsaicin cream and narcotic pain relievers (codeine is one example).

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Proper hygiene can often protect people from the development of infections such as shingles. The shingle vaccine and the chickenpox vaccine are also helpful in preventing disease. Stress is often associated with the increased risk of shingles development. This is why relaxation can often be beneficial for people who want to avoid getting shingles.

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