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Shingles

Anyone who had chicken pox is at risk for shingles, a viral infection which causes an outbreak of blisters or a rash on the skin.

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Think you can’t get chicken pox again if you had them as a child? The condition can be mild or quite painful and is more common in adults over age 50. In people with weak immune systems, such as those with HIV, shingles can be a more serious threat. Complications from shingles include vision loss if you’ve had shingles around the eye and other problems including facial paralysis.

Shingles causes Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. Experts believe that once you have had chicken pox, the virus is inactive in nerve tissue and then years later can reactivate as shingles. It’s possible that as we age, our immune systems are weaker which is why shingles is more common in older adults. Shingles can be contagious; if you have it, you can pass the virus to other people who have not had chickenpox so it’s best to avoid contact with pregnant women, newborns and anyone with a weak immune system. Children who catch the virus will develop chicken pox, not shingles.

Shingles symptoms If you have shingles, you may feel burning, tingling, itchiness or numbness in one area or on one side of the body. Within a few days, you’ll develop a rash of blisters similar to chicken pox. Usually these appear in a band on one side of the trunk around the waistline. It’s possible to have shingles and have no rash.

Shingles diagnosis/tests If you think you may have shingles, contact your doctor. It’s especially important to seek medical attention if the rash occurs near your eyes, since it can lead to eye damage; if the rash is intensely painful or if you live with someone with a weakened immune system. Your doctor will likely diagnose you based on your rash and other symptoms, but may also take a culture of the blisters for laboratory analysis.

Shingles treatment Usually pain subsides with treatment within three to five weeks and there is no scarring from the blisters. Anti-retroviral drugs reduce the severity of shingles, shorten its duration and help guard against potentially painful after-effects of shingles, called postherpetic neuralgia. These can also be treated with steroids, topical agents, antidepressants and other medications.

Shingles prevention A vaccine is available for people ages 60 and older who have had chickenpox to prevent shingles. Even if you still develop it, if you’ve had the vaccine, it will likely be less severe.

Outside resources
Mayo Clinic