The unpleasant, uncomfortable rash, which affects about one million people per year, is actually a reactivation of the virus that causes the common childhood disease chickenpox. The virus is called a “varicella zoster” virus, which remains dormant within our nerve tissue until it’s activated.
Shingles can appear on any area of the body, although they are common around the buttocks and trunk. The rash will appear on only one side of the body. If it appears in the eye, there’s a risk of blindness and you need to talk immediately to an ophthalmologist, in addition to your primary care physician.
Age is frequently a factor in getting shingles, especially in those over 50, according to the National Institutes of Health. Besides age, other causes may be a lowered immune system caused by illnesses like cancer or AIDS, or having had chickenpox before the age of one. Some experts also believe that stress, which lowers the immune-system response, can be a cause. Most people who get shingles are healthy. Although shingles isn’t a life-threatening illness, it’s often painful and debilitating, and it needs medical attention right away.
So how do you recognize it? Often it starts without any unusual symptoms: You might feel an itching sensation even before the rash shows up or have burning or severe pain in that area. At that stage you may think you’re just having a case of some extra-dry skin. (However, you might also have a fever or just feel ill in general.) The rash usually becomes visible one to three days later. It starts out as red patches that eventually, in most cases, form blisters. After the blisters break, they begin to dry and eventually fall off. Unfortunately, the process takes two to three weeks, and while there’s no scarring, there’s a chance that the affected area can remain a bit discolored.
To treat shingles, physicians use anti-viral medicines like Famvir or Valtrex. They may also prescribe pain medication. After the blisters have healed, a topical cream like Zostrex helps lessen post-herpetic neuralgia. Lidocaine is another option for lessening that pain. As a protective measure, you can get a shingles vaccine. The federal Centers For Disease Control recommends the shot for anyone over 50, even if you’ve already had shingles. The effectiveness is about 50 percent, but that amount of protection is better than none at all.