Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful blistering rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox virus. The chickenpox virus remains in a resting phase in nerve cells for years before it is reactivated and grows down the nerves to the skin to produce shingles (herpes zoster). Anyone who has previously had chickenpox may subsequently develop shingles. This can occur in childhood but is much more common in adults, especially the elderly. In general, it is more common in older adults and tends to be more severe in this group.
Shingles typically starts as a rash on one side of the face or body. The rash starts as grouped blisters that scab after a few days and clears within 2-4 weeks. Before the rash develops, there is often pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. Patients may feel systemically ill with fever, headache, chills and tender lymph nodes. For approximately 20% of patients, severe pain can continue even after the rash clears. This pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia.
Shingles is not contagious (one person will not give another person shingles); however the virus can be spread to anyone who has not had chickenpox. The exposed person will develop chickenpox, not shingles. Patients with shingles should keep the rash covered, not touch or scratch the rash, and wash their hands frequently to prevent the spread of the virus.
Patients with shingles should see their doctor immediately to get on antiviral medications that will help shorten the duration and severity of the illness. Medications may also be used to help those with post-herpetic neuralgia.