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7 Things You Should Know About Shingles

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Shingles is an excruciating illness for many people. The disease is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, or the chickenpox virus, and occurs when the virus reactivates in a person who had chickenpox in the past. Chickenpox is generally a short-lived illness, generally occurring in children and young adults. Unfortunately, once chickenpox has passed, the virus is never completely eliminated from the body, and can cause shingles many years later. Shingles usually occurs in middle-aged people or seniors, and around the world it occurs in about 3.4 cases per 1000 healthy individuals, and increases to 11.8 in every 1000 individuals per year in those older than 65 years. There is a shingles vaccine, and it is usually heavily encouraged in people who had chickenpox as a child.

Risk Factors

Shingles is most common in people older than 50, and the risk only increases with age. Experts estimate that over half the people 80 and older either have had shingles or will have shingles. Autoimmune diseases such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, or multiple sclerosis weaken the immune system, and therefore people with such diseases will be at higher risk for shingles. Undergoing cancer treatment can also put you at risk. Radiation and chemotherapy lowers your resistance to diseases and can trigger shingles. Certain medications can also increase risk. Taking steroids such as prednisone and drugs designed to prevent rejection of transplanted organs can also lead to an increased risk for shingles.

Three Stages

There are three stages to shingles symptoms – the prodromal stage, the active stage, and the postherpetic neuralgia stage. Each stage has its own symptoms that get progressively worse.

Prodromal Stage

The first stage is the prodromal stage, before the rash appears. Symptoms such as pain, burning, tingling, and numbness in the area surrounding the affected nerves occur several days or even weeks before a rash appears. The symptoms typically occur on the chest or back, but they may also occur on the head, face, neck, belly, or one arm or leg.

Flu-Like Symptoms

People describe feeling like they have the flu during this stage. Symptoms such as chills, stomachache, or diarrhea may occur just before the start of the rash. They experience a high fever and chronic headaches. They may also experience sensitivity to light or extreme fatigue. Like other viral infections, people may experience some swelling or tenderness of their lymph nodes.

Active Stage

The primary stage of shingles occurs when the rash and blisters appear. A small area of rash appears, usually in the shape of a band or strip. It can appear anywhere on the body, but it will only appear on one side of the body, either left or right. Blisters will then start to form, with clear fluid inside. After a few days, the fluid inside the blisters will become cloudy. After about 5 days, the blisters will break opens, ooze, and crust over. Rarely, some people won’t get a rash, or they will get a mild rash. Another rash usually occurs on the face, even around one eye. This can be detrimental to sight, so prompt medical treatment should be sought. The rash may be painful, and people describe this pain as the sensation of “piercing needles.” The rash heals in about 2 to 4 weeks, but scars may remain.

Postherpetic Neuralgia

The final stage in the course of shingles is the postherpetic stage, or the chronic pain stage. It is the most common complication of shingles and lasts for at least 30 days, although it may continue for months or even years. People in this stage experience aching, burning or stabbing pain in the area that they had a rash during the active stage. The pain involved is persistent, lasting potentially for years. People in this stage are extremely sensitive to touch, even of bed linens or pillows. The pain associated with this stage usually affects the forehead or chest. It may make it difficult for the person to eat, sleep, or complete other daily activities. Many people in the midst of this stage experience depression because their daily lives are so hindered by the pain.

Your Next Step

If you believe that you or someone you know has shingles, you should immediately seek medical treatment. A person with shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox – anyone with a weak immune system, newborn children, and pregnant women. Although should you pass on the virus, the person infected will develop chickenpox and not shingles. Shingles is contagious until the blisters scab over, so a person infected with shingles could be contagious for weeks.

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