If you’ve ever known someone who’s had shingles, then you’ve heard how painful it can be. But what exactly are shingles, and how do you treat it?
“Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus which usually results in a painful rash on one side of the body,” said Kim Schindler, NP a family medicine nurse practitioner with Banner Health Clinic in Wyoming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 out of every 3 people in the U.S. will get shingles at some point during their life.
Shingles Symptoms: What Should I Look Out For?
The first symptoms of shingles tend to be itching, tingling, burning or pain, followed by a rash a few days later. A clue that it’s shingles, and not something else, is shingles almost always presents on just one side of the body. In addition to these symptoms affecting the skin, some people also experience fever, chills, upset stomach or headaches, although as Schindler noted, “fewer than 20% of those who develop shingles experience these non-skin symptoms."
Once the rash appears, it usually consists of clustered red bumps that may form into blisters and ooze fluid. After 1-2 weeks, the blisters begin to heal and form scabs, but pain may persist at the site of the rash long after the skin has healed.
“Because shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, anyone who has had chickenpox is a candidate for shingles, even children,” said Schindler. And varicella zoster virus (VZV), the virus that causes shingles, can be spread from a person with active shingles to others and cause chickenpox in those who have not had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine, according to the CDC.
The most important thing to know about shingles treatment is that you must start taking the medications as soon as you see a rash appear for the treatment to be most effective.
The typical treatment is done with antiviral medications, prescribed by your health care provider, to shorten the duration and lessen the severity of shingles, said Schindler. If not taken in time, the other option is to treat the pain associated with shingles with acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen, and to help with itch relief, a topical cream like calamine lotion or an oatmeal bath can be considered. Although not common, the shingles rash can become infected and then antibiotics are needed.
Should I Get a Shingles Vaccine?
According to the CDC, there are two shingles vaccinations approved for use in the U.S.: Zostavax, a live vaccine, and Shingrix, a newer option. Schindler says Shingrix is preferred due to its greater effectiveness in preventing shingles and the long-term pain after the rash has healed. Shingrix is recommended for healthy adults over the age of 50 and given as an injection in two doses. Zostavax is also effective in preventing shingles in healthy adults 60 and older and is the preferred option if you’re allergic to Shingrix or need immediate vaccination as opposed to the two, spread-out doses.
If you’re concerned you may have shingles, early treatment is critical, so consult a physician immediately.