Shining a light on shingles
Have you had chickenpox? If you have, then there’s a chance you could develop shingles, a very painful, blistering skin rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.
It’s estimated that 1 in 3 people will get shingles during their lifetime.
With 1 million cases diagnosed each year in the United States and 1 in 3 people estimated to get shingles in their lifetime, the ailment is not uncommon. Rob Danoff, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Philadelphia, tells us who is most vulnerable to shingles and provides tips to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment.
Who is at Risk?
“Shingles is a risk for anyone who’s ever had chickenpox, particularly older adults and people who have a weakened immune system,” explains Dr. Danoff. “After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus can lie dormant for years, then reactivate and produce shingles.”
People who’ve had chicken pox and those with weakened immune systems are at risk for developing shingles.
So if you’ve never had chicken pox, are you in the clear? Not necessarily, explains Dr. Danoff. People who’ve never had chickenpox can’t develop shingles, but they could get chicken pox from coming into contact with the rash or blisters on a person with shingles.
What are the Common Symptoms?
Shingles symptoms might be difficult to detect in the early stages but there are some telltale signs, including:
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
- A red rash or stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso, or occurs around one eye, or on one side of the neck or face
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over within two to three weeks
- Fever and chills
- General achiness
- Joint pain
- Swollen glands
“Shingles symptoms vary in severity and some people can experience shingles pain without ever developing a rash,” explains Dr. Danoff.
When Should You Consult a Physician?
If you notice a persistent pain or a widespread itchy rash on your body, Dr. Danoff recommends scheduling an immediate appointment with your physician.
For people over 60, it’s especially important to get medical care at the first sign of shingles.
“For people over 60, it is especially important to get medical care at the first signs of shingles, as sometimes pain in the affected area can linger months to years following an outbreak if the nerves have been damaged,” explains Dr. Danoff. Immediate care is also crucial in preventing possible complications, such as:
- Vision loss—a possible result of eye infections caused by shingles in or around an eye
- Neurological problems—e.g. inflammation of the brain, facial paralysis, or hearing/ balance problems
- Post-herpetic neuralgia—a painful condition that may result from shingles and last for many weeks or months, even after the rash has disappeared
- Skin infections—occur when shingles blisters aren’t properly treated
What is the Treatment for Shingles?
“While there is no cure for shingles, prompt treatment with prescription antiviral drugs and pain medicine can speed healing and reduce the risk of complications,” explains Dr. Danoff.
Additional courses of treatment include:
- Keeping sores and blisters clean
- Taking prescription medication as directed
- Being honest and forthcoming with your doctor about lingering symptoms such as chronic pain
Dr. Danoff also recommends that adults 50 years or older speak with their physician about Zostavax, an immunization designed to reduce the risk of getting shingles.