S is for Shingles

A Pox Upon This Dreaded Rash

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, varicella-zoster virus. In fact, the only way someone can get shingles is if they already had chickenpox.

But, not everyone who has had chickenpox will get shingles, according to Archana Goyal, M.D., an internal medicine physician at the Center for Primary Care in Green Valley. “A good way to understand how shingles develops is to imagine a hibernating bear,” she said. “Once a person gets chickenpox, the virus goes to ‘sleep,’ and if it wakes up later in life, it can cause a painful, blistering rash.”

There is no way of knowing if you will get this painful rash, but there are risk factors to consider. “The risk increases, especially for those over age 50,” Dr. Goyal said. People with weakened immune systems are also at risk of acquiring shingles, as are those who are under a great deal of stress.

Shingles starts with a burning or tingling pain on one side of the body or face, usually in a small area. At the outset, you might also experience chills or a fever. A few days later a red rash appears that turns into fluid-filled blisters. “It is important to see a physician as soon as possible once a rash occurs, because there is a window of treatment, generally within the first 72 hours after symptoms have started.”

Treatment includes anti-viral and pain medications. “Often, over-the-counter pain medications, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, can’t relieve the pain,” she explained. “For very painful shingles, your physician may prescribe a stronger medication.”

It takes about 10 days for the blisters to dry up. While it’s not contagious at this point, it’s still important to stay away from anyone who has not had chickenpox or who has a weakened immune system, as it is possible to catch the virus and then get sick with chickenpox.

A shingles vaccine is available for those age 60 and older. It is a safe, one-time shot that lowers your chance of getting shingles, even if you have had them once. Ask your primary care physician if you’re a candidate for the injection.

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