Shingles is the popular name for an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The virus attacks a nerve, causing serious pain as well as a rash in the respective area. While the rash itself doesn't last more than 2 or 4 weeks, the pain can continue for some time. Elder people, over the age of 50, have a higher risk to experience long-term pain.

The disease targets people with weak immunity, which can be caused by aging, severe stress, wounds, aggressive medical treatments or any other reason. It is possible to be infected several times but most people develop immunity and can only have the shingles one time. Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is linked with chickenpox. People who have suffered from chickenpox at one point have a higher risk of developing shingles as well.

What causes shingles?

Shingles is actually caused by the same virus as chickenpox, if it becomes active again. The virus is not completely eliminated from the body after chickenpox is healed, it stays in a latent form in the roots of the nerves. It doesn't always become active. If the immune system weakens due to aging or other factors, it can wake up and infect the nerves, but in some people it remains latent forever. For unknown reasons, a side effect of some drugs is the reactivation of this virus. It always causes shingles afterwards, a new outbreak of chickenpox is not possible.

The disease itself is not contagious, meaning that you can't transmit shingles to someone else. However, the virus itself can be passed to another person who is vulnerable to it. It is possible to develop chickenpox by taking the virus from someone who suffers from shingles, but the chance is low.

Is shingles contagious?

If you never had chickenpox and you don't have a vaccine, there is a risk to catch the disease after contact with a shingles patient. However, most people have already suffered from this disease, which makes them immune. Shingles itself can't be transmitted in any way.

The period of virus contagion is while the blisters on the rash are still active. Until all of them are dry, you can pass the virus as chickenpox to somebody else. The risk is low however, and covering the blisters is usually enough to protect others from contagion. Direct contact with the fluid inside the blisters would be required, which is quite unlikely. People can safely continue to go to work if they suffer from shingles, as long as they cover the area of the rash. It is also common for kids to go to school with shingles, unless they have other symptoms.

Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the disease and should stay away from people with shingles, if they are not already immune to chickenpox. The risk is also very high for people with a weak or suppressed immune system. Remember that you must avoid direct contact with the rash, since this is the only way to catch the virus.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

In most cases, the infection spreads along a single nerve. Every nerve has a delimited area of influence and the symptoms will only appear there. Sometimes, more than one nerve can be infected, if they are in close proximity. Usually, the disease attacks the nerves located on the skin on the abdomen or chest. A second vulnerable area is the face, the eye can also be affected. The skin in the nerve area gets covered by a rash, with sometimes severe pain.

The pain is local and only located in the area of the affected nerve. Since the disease can attack any nerves, no area of the body is immune from this kind of pain. The pain varies in intensity and type, from constant to cyclical and from low to severe. Some people experience short outburst of strong pain, similar to stabbing. The skin in the area is sensitive when touched.

The first symptom of the shingles is the pain, with the rash only appearing a few days afterwards. It starts with red patches, followed by blisters that can be very itchy. The rash is localized in the infected nerve's area of action but otherwise looks exactly like chickenpox. During the first week, a number of new blisters can appear and the inflammation can cause the tissues surrounding the rash to become swollen. After about one week, the blisters become dry and eventually heal. The area affected by the blisters can stay red for some time and severe outbreaks sometimes cause minor scarring.

From start to finish, shingles lasts between 2 and 4 weeks. The symptoms are variable, some people only have the rash without any pain while others experience the exact opposite. The infection can also cause temporary fevers, headaches and nausea.

Treatment options

The virus that causes shingles can't be removed from the body but there are some available treatments to decrease the duration of the outbreak or control its symptoms.

A number of easy remedies can be applied at home. As a general advice in any infection, rest is helpful for a faster recovery. The itching can be relieved by applying compresses with cold water on the rash, which also decreases the pain. Calamine lotions or baths in colloidal oatmeal are also known to reduce the itching and pain.

After a few weeks, the disease is healed and the chance of a new infection is extremely low. However, if the symptoms persist after about 10 days with no signs of healing, you should ask for medical advice immediately.