Saanichton, BC

Dr. Miguel A. Lipka

Shingles

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Shingles (herpes zoster) is a viral infection of the nerve roots. It causes pain and often causes a rash on one side of the body, the left or right. The rash appears in a band, a strip, or a small area.

Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chicken pox starts up again in your body. After you get better from chicken pox, the virus is dormant in your nerve roots. In some people, it stays dormant forever. In others, the virus "wakes up" when disease, stress, or aging weakens the immune system. It is not clear why this happens. But after the virus becomes active again, it can only cause shingles, not chicken pox.

Shingles is most common in older adults and people who have weak immune systems because of stress, injury, certain medicines, or other reasons. Most people who get shingles will get better and will not get it again.

Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles. You have a greater chance of getting shingles if you:

  • Are older than 50.
  • Have an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack your body’s own tissues.
  • Have another health problem or stress that weakens the immune system.

You can't catch shingles from someone else who has shingles. But a person with a shingles rash can spread chicken pox to another person who hasn't had chicken pox and who hasn't gotten the chicken pox vaccine.

Shingles symptoms happen in stages. At first you may have a headache or be sensitive to light. You may also feel like you have the flu but not have a fever.

Later, you may feel itching, tingling, or pain in a certain area. That’s where a band, strip, or small area of rash may occur a few days later. The rash turns into clusters of blisters. The blisters fill with fluid and then crust over. It takes 2 to 4 weeks for the blisters to heal, and they may leave scars. Some people only get a mild rash, and some do not get a rash at all.

It’s possible that you could also feel dizzy or weak, or you could have long-term pain or a rash on your face, changes in your vision, changes in how well you can think, or a rash that spreads. If you have any of these problems from shingles, call your doctor right away.

There is no cure for shingles, but treatment may help you get well sooner and prevent other problems. The sooner you start treatment, the better it works. Treatment may include:

  • Antiviral medicines
  • Medicines to help long-term pain, including antidepressants, and skin creams
  • Over-the-counter pain medicines

Good home care can help you feel better faster. Take care of any skin sores, and keep them clean.

Avoid contact with people until the rash heals. While you have shingles, you can spread chicken pox to people who have never had chicken pox and who haven't gotten the chicken pox vaccine. Be extra careful to avoid people with weak immune systems and pregnant women and babies who have never had chicken pox and have never gotten the vaccine.