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Everything You Need to Know about Shingles

Have you ever had shingles? No, no . . . not the things you put on your rooftop! Maybe you’ve heard of shingles, but don’t really know what the condition is, or know the signs and symptoms. Well, we’re here to help! Keep reading for everything you need to know (and more) about shingles.

What are shingles?
Not all rashes are caused by an allergic reaction or irritation—if you’ve ever had a painful rash that was preceded a few days earlier by an itchy sensation, you may have shingles, an infection that affects up to one million people in the United States each year.

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, occurs in some people who have had chickenpox. The virus that causes chickenpox (varicella zoster) stays in the body's nerve tissue and can become active again later. It travels down a nerve and breaks out on the skin in a rash that looks like chickenpox. No one knows what reactivates the chickenpox virus, but some experts think it may be age or stress. Most people recover from shingles and never have it again; only about 4 percent go on to have another episode.

Who is at risk?
Could you get shingles? Possibly—about two of every ten people have shingles at some time in their life. This condition usually occurs after age 50, but it can affect younger people—especially when the immune system has been weakened by cancer, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or HIV.

What are the symptoms?
The first symptom usually is numbness, itchiness, a burning sensation, or stabbing pain, typically affecting the trunk or face—but only on one side of the body. A fever and feelings of weakness may also be present. After a few days, a rash begins as clusters of small bumps that become clear, fluid-filled blisters. Later, the blisters fill with cloudy fluid, break open, and begin to crust. Some people experience only mild itchiness; others have extreme and intense pain. After the scabs from the blisters fall off within a few days to a few weeks, the pain fades, and most people have no complications.

However, some people who have shingles on their face may experience temporary or permanent problems with hearing or vision, or both. Others may have temporary paralysis of the face, problems with sleep, anxiety, depression, or an inflammation of the brain. People who scratch their rash may get an infection, which can lead to scarring.

Before the rash appears, it can be easy to mistake shingles for other conditions (for example, kidney stones, appendicitis, or heart attack), depending on the nerve that is affected. Once the rash breaks out, doctors can tell shingles apart from chickenpox by the pattern of the rash. If the diagnosis is still in doubt, laboratory tests can confirm it.

Is there any way to treat shingles?
If started within 48 hours of the first symptoms, antiviral drugs may shorten a shingles attack. Pain relievers and cold compresses may also be helpful. If post-herpetic neuralgia develops, some people may benefit from steroids, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, nerve blocks, or creams or ointments applied to the skin. Natural creams containing lemon balm and cayenne may also be beneficial. Others may respond to relaxation exercises such as biofeedback or a technique called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), in which small amounts of electric current are sent to the affected nerve.

So now you know! With the above information you can be prepared to recognize the signs and symptoms of shingles in yourself or loved ones and take action accordingly.

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