Herpes zoster (or simply zoster), commonly known as shingles, is a viral disease. It is characterized by a painful skin rash with blisters. Shingles usually appears in a band or strip or small area on one-side of the face or body.
Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles. This is because shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body in a dormant (inactive) state. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.
The risk of developing shingles increases as a person gets older. About half of all shingles cases occur among men and women 60 years old or older.
People who have medical conditions that keep their immune systems from working properly and people who receive immunosuppressive drugs are also at a greater risk of developing shingles.
The first symptoms of shingles include burning, itching and/or painful skin sensations in the area that the rash will appear. Other symptoms such as fever, headache and sensitivity to light are also common. In a few days, a red rash will appear. The rash turns into clusters of fluid-filled blisters, which will then crust over. It takes 2-4 weeks for the blisters to heal, and they may leave scars.
The most common complication of shingles is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with PHN have severe pain in the areas where they had the shingles rash, even after the rash clears up.
The pain from PHN can be severe and debilitating. It usually resolves in a few weeks or months. In some cases, the pain can last for years.
There are antiviral medicines available to treat shingles. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. To be effective, these medicines must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears. Therefore, people who have or think they might have shingles should call their healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.
The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that can follow is to get vaccinated. A vaccine for shingles is available; however, it is not appropriate for everyone.