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What Do I Need to Know About Shingles?

Most people who contracted chickenpox as children were too young to remember it, and they don’t worry about getting it again. After all, we develop an immunity to chickenpox after going through it.

However, this disease can reactivate later in life in the form of shingles (also called herpes zoster). Shingles presents somewhat differently than chickenpox, and because it affects adults rather than small children, its symptoms can be difficult to bear.

If you should ever undergo this irritating illness, it’s helpful to know what to expect and what to do about it. Here’s what you should know about shingles.

Shingles Is a Viral Infection

Shingles derives from the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox, as mentioned above. Anyone with a history of chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles. The shingles virus may linger in one’s body (usually in or near the spinal tissue) for years before reactivating.

As for why the virus awakens, the exact reason is unknown. But while medical researchers may not know precisely what causes shingles, they think it has something to do with a weakened immune system, whether due to age, an immune disease, injury, or stress.

Shingles Can Be Painful

Shingles yields a number of symptoms ranging from uncomfortable to painful. In most cases, isolated pain is the first sign of shingles, followed by a shingles rash in that particular area. Further shingles symptoms include:

  • Tingling in or under your skin
  • Redness, blisters, and inflammation
  • Severe itching
  • Fever, chills, and headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue/malaise

These various shingles symptoms often only affect one area or one side of the body.

Shingles Is Contagious

Those with shingles can spread the virus to those without immunity to chickenpox while their rash and blisters remain open. However, passing on the disease usually requires direct contact with these sores.

When someone who has not had chickenpox before contracts the virus, they will contract chickenpox, not shingles. If you have shingles, you will remain contagious until these blisters close up and dry out. So, it’s best to stay away from people until this time.

Shingles Is Typically Short-Lived

Fortunately, shingles is not a relatively prolonged disease. The duration of shingles will vary from person to person, but it typically goes away on its own in a matter of weeks. Some patients may even get through it in a few days, while others may have to deal with shingles for a month or a bit longer.

Shingles Can Be Treated

That said, shingles treatment options can shorten the length of the disease and alleviate its symptoms for greater comfort. Doctors will often prescribe antiviral medications to help your immune system fight back. The most common antiviral drugs for shingles are Famciclovir (Famvir), Acyclovir (Zovirax), and Valacyclovir (Valtrex).

Your doctor may also recommend drugs to reduce pain and feelings of discomfort or depression, such as:

  • Medicated lotions and numbing creams (lidocaine)
  • Over-the-counter painkillers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen)
  • Prescription painkillers (codeine)
  • Cool compresses
  • Anticonvulsant drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • Antidepressants such as amitriptyline

Shingles Is Preventable

While there’s no guarantee against shingles, receiving a shingles vaccine can greatly reduce your chances of contracting the disease. As of now, there are two major FDA-approved immunizations: Shingrix and Zostavax.

The latter, Zostavax, is a single-injection live vaccine that provides immunity for approximately five years and has been around since 2006. Shingrix, on the other hand, came about in 2017 and has proven itself to be 90% effective against shingles while lasting longer than five years. As such, this vaccine has become the preferred method of shingles prevention by doctors. Medical professionals recommend that patients 50 and over receive this vaccine regardless of whether they’ve had shingles in the past.

Shingles affects many people each year. The more you know about this disease, the better prepared you’ll be to fight it off and get on with your life. Premier Dermatology provides patient education, medical advice, and treatments to those looking to improve their skin and overall health. To learn more about our providers and all the services we offer, contact us today.

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