Ask anyone who has developed shingles and they’ll tell you that it’s one of the most painful health issues you can experience. Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. For most people, chickenpox is a common childhood disease that causes severe itching and discomfort as it runs its course. Eventually, you recover, but the virus is never completely eliminated in your body. Instead, it becomes dormant and takes up residence inside the nervous system.
The virus can lie dormant for years before being triggered by something that weakens the immune system – such as an illness or even a prolonged high level of stress – allowing it to become active. Once activated the virus travels along the nerve fibers to the surface of the skin and causes an outbreak.
While almost everybody is harboring the shingles virus, it is estimated that only half will develop a case of shingles at some point in their lives. Also, as you age, the likelihood of developing shingles increases, with more than half of all cases occurring in patients 60 years of age and older. Technically, shingles is not contagious. However, once blisters develop, the fluid inside the blisters can transmit the varicella zoster virus through direct contact. If it is transmitted to someone who does not already have the virus, they may develop chickenpox, not shingles.
How can I tell if I have shingles?
The earliest sign of an outbreak is usually a cluster of red bumps on only one side of the body. These bumps tend to itch at first and then become sore and are sometimes mistaken for acne blemishes or bug bites. While this cluster of developing blisters is most likely to appear on the torso, it can show up on other parts of the body, including the head and face. Once the outbreak starts, it can last between two and five weeks, during which the pain and discomfort may become severe.
Usually, once the outbreak subsides, the pain goes away. In some cases, however, the nerve pain can persist for months or even years, a condition called “postherpetic neuralgia” or PHN.
Another area of concern is if the shingles outbreak affects the eyes. This can cause vision problems that, in the worst-case scenario, can include permanent blindness.
What should I do if I think I might have shingles?
Clearly, preventing shingles from developing in the first place is the preferred alternative. Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated for shingles. Until recently, Zostavax was the only shingles vaccine on the market and it’s effective in cutting the risk of an outbreak by over 50 percent. Plus, if you do get shingles, it reduces the risk of developing PHN by 67 percent. In recent months, however, the Food & Drug Administration approved Shingrix, a new shingles vaccine that is 90 percent effective at preventing both shingles and PHN.
If you notice a cluster of red bumps and you’re concerned that an outbreak has started. Get to your doctor as quickly as possible. If you can get treatment with a prescribed antiviral medication within the first couple of days, you can reduce the symptoms and the length of the outbreak substantially.
Finally, if you don’t get the early treatment and you’re in the middle of a full-blown shingles outbreak, see your doctor and ask about treatment that can minimize your pain and help you sleep better until it runs its course.