Shingles is an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin due to the varicella-zoster virus, the virus that causes chickenpox. Symptoms include burning or tingling pain, which may be intense and usually are present before any rash appears.
After several days or a week, a rash of fluid-filled blisters, similar to chickenpox, appears on one side of the body. The most common location for shingles is a band, called a dermatone, spanning one side of the trunk around the waistline. The rash may also involve the face, eyes, mouth and ears.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles. The blisters will break, forming small sores that will begin to dry and form crusts. The crusts will fall off in two to three weeks. Scarring is rare.
Shingles may develop in any age group, but you are more likely to develop the condition if you are older than 60, had chickenpox before age l or if your immune system is weakened by medications or disease.
If an adult or child has direct contact with the shingles rash and did not have chickenpox as a child or a chickenpox vaccine, he or she can develop chickenpox, not shingles.
Your health care provider can make a diagnosis of shingles by looking at your skin and asking questions about your medical history.
Treatment with an antiviral drug should be started within 72 hours of when you first feel pain or burning, before the blisters appear. Drugs are usually given in pill form and in high doses.
Cool, wet compresses can be used to reduce pain. Soothing baths and lotions, such as colloidal oatmeal bath, starch baths or calamine lotion, may help to relieve itching and discomfort.
Keep your skin clean, do not reuse contaminated items and wash nondisposable items in boiling water or disinfect them before using them again.
Stay away from people while the sores are oozing to avoid infecting those who have never had chickenpox. Shingles usually clear up in a few weeks and rarely return.
Shirley DeAcetis has her master’s degree in social work and supervises the Maino Community Health Library at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation.