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For Your Health: Know the Signs of Shingles

October 24, 2012

Have you had chickenpox? Are you age 60 or older? Do you have a weakened immune system? Are you pregnant? If you answered yes to any of these questions you may be at a greater risk of getting Shingles. It has been estimated that up to a million cases of Shingles occur each year in the U.S.

Shingles is a painful, blistering skin rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you’ve had the chickenpox, the virus remains dormant within the body. It is possible to develop Shingles later in life if the virus becomes active again; however it is not yet known what triggers the reactivation of the virus.

An outbreak can occur anywhere on the body, most often appearing as a single band of blisters that wrap around either the left or the right side of the torso. Sometimes the rash may occur around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.

 An outbreak of Shingles happens in stages. At first you may experience a terrible headache, sensitivity to light, or feel like you have the flu without running a fever. This will lead to itching, tingling, or pain on the body where a rash may occur a few days later. The rash will become a cluster of blisters which will eventually fill with fluid and crust over. It typically takes 2 to 4 weeks for the blisters to completely heal and they may leave scarring. Some people only get a mild rash, while others never develop a rash at all. Other symptoms include: burning, numbness or tingling, fever and chills, general achiness, or fatigue.

 The following groups are more likely to develop Shingles:

  • Individuals older than 60
  • Individuals who had chickenpox before age 1
  • Individuals whose immune systems have been weakened by injury, medications, disease, or stress

 It is not possible to pass Singles from one person to another. However, an infected person can give the virus to anyone who has not had the chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine. This occurs through direct contact with the open sores on Shingles rash. Once infected, a person will develop chickenpox, not Shingles. Until your Shingles blisters scab over, you are contagious and should avoid physical contact with others, especially individuals who have a weakened immune system, newborns and pregnant women, as chickenpox can be more dangerous for these individuals.

 Shingles is diagnosed based on pain on one side of the body and the band of rash and blisters. Your doctor may take a tissue scraping or culture of the blisters for examination in the laboratory. While there is no cure for Shingles, prompt treatment with prescription antiviral drugs can speed healing and reduce the risk of complications.

 There is a Shingles vaccine for people who are 50 years and older. This lowers an individual’s chances of getting Shingles and prevents long-term pain that can occur. This vaccine does not guarantee you will never get Shingles; however, should you get them, it makes it more likely you will have less pain and your rash will clear up quicker. The CDC recommends a single dose of the Shingles vaccine for people 60 years and older, even if they've already had Shingles.

 To help reduce the duration and pain of shingles try some of these tips:

  • Take good care of skin sores.
  • Avoid picking at and scratching blisters. Let blisters crust over and fall off naturally.
  • Use a cool, moist compress to help ease discomfort. Lotions, such as calamine, may be applied after a wet compresses.
  • Apply cornstarch or baking soda to help dry the sores to help them heal quickly.
  • Ask your doctor about using topical creams to help relieve the inflammation and infection.
  • Use nonprescription pain medicines, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, to help reduce pain.

 If home treatment doesn't help with pain, talk to your doctor. Getting your pain under control right away may prevent nerve damage that may cause pain that lasts for months or years.

 Sources: Dr. Karamjit Bhullar, M.D., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, www.mayoclinic.com, www.wedmd.com,    

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