Shingles are often associated with chickenpox, and while they both originate from the varicella-zoster virus, it is essential to know that the illness, symptoms, and discomfort a patient experiences with each can be quite different.
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Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, occur when someone who already had chickenpox suffers from the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus in their body. It is not precisely known what triggers the virus to reactivate.
Shingles have similar symptoms and rash to that of chickenpox. The most common and uncomfortable symptom is the pain associated with the blistering and scabbing of the skin area.
Unlike chickenpox, which is commonly widespread on the body, shingles most often remain in a smaller area and on one side of the body.
The symptoms of shingles can include:
Painful or burning sensation on the skin
Blisters that form on the skin
Blisters or lesions on the skin
A doctor can diagnose whether you have shingles based on examining your lesions and your history of exposure to the varicella-zoster virus. If necessary, they may send a sample of the fluid from the blisters to a lab to confirm the virus’s presence.
Any blistering that occurs near the eyes or on the face during a shingles outbreak is an emergency, as it can cause permanent damage to your sight.
In some patients, the skin damage and blistering pain can continue even after healing due to postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
Shingle is a complex condition. Although it is not contagious, you can pass on the varicella-zoster virus if the other person has never had it before or has not had the shingles vaccine.
Suppose a person with no history of or vaccination from the virus becomes exposed through the open blisters of someone with shingles. In that case, they can contract chickenpox.
The contagion period for shingles depends significantly on how long your blisters heal. A person with shingles can still pass on the virus until all blisters have scabbed over.
Typically, the blisters can take two to four weeks to reach this final stage of healing.
The varicella-zoster virus primarily spreads through a person coming into contact with the fluid from the blisters that form on the skin.
Shingles are not commonly associated with the airborne transmission; however, virus particles from the blisters’ fluids can enter the air in rare instances and subsequently infect another person.
The most effective approach to preventing the spread of the varicella-zoster virus is to keep the blisters that form covered at all times. Furthermore, not touching the blisters and frequently washing your hands can ensure you do not pass on the virus to others through contact.
It is also best to entirely avoid individuals with weakened immune systems as they are more susceptible to contracting the virus. These include babies, pregnant women, those with conditions that inhibit their immune system, and the elderly.
In most instances, isolation is not necessary for an individual with shingles. However, suppose you are in a healthcare setting or nursing home and contract shingles. In that case, isolation is required to prevent shingles from spreading to others.
Additionally, isolation may be recommended to prevent others from contracting the disease if you live with people at high risk of complications, have never been vaccinated, or have never contracted the varicella virus.
If necessary, the isolation timeline for shingles will follow the resolution of the blisters. Once all of the blisters have dried and scabbed over, you are likely no longer able to spread the virus and can move on with your day-to-day activities.
Although there are higher risks of complications in the older population, anyone who at some point in their lives has had chickenpox is at risk of contracting shingles in their lifetime.
According to the CDC, over 30%¹ of the US population will contract shingles during their lifetime. It affects one million people annually.
The treatment for shingles revolves around making you more comfortable and alleviating and shortening the duration of the symptoms and pain you are experiencing. Treatment can depend on the symptoms and the stage at which you seek help from your doctor.
Due to the underlying virus that causes the shingles illness, certain antiviral medications may help shorten the length of time of the disease and the duration of the symptoms.
However, antivirals work best early on in the illness, within 72 hours of symptoms developing. The longer it takes for you to seek treatment, the less effective antiviral medications might be at offering relief.
In most shingles cases, over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help manage the pain and discomfort of the blisters on the skin until they heal. If the pain is severe and overwhelming, a doctor may be able to prescribe stronger pain medication if necessary.
Shingles can take time to fully heal, as most individuals face several weeks between when the illness begins and when the lesions on the skin fully heal.
In addition to the treatment advised by your doctor, it is beneficial for a patient with shingles to:
Get sufficient rest
Stay properly hydrated
Eat nutritious meals
Wear comfortable loose clothing over the blisters
Avoid activities that aggravate your symptoms
Shingles vaccines can help you avoid contracting the shingles virus and prevent serious complications.
If you suspect you have shingles and are experiencing any symptoms that could be shingles, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible. Shingles can be very painful for some individuals, and the illness can take many days to run its course.
The sooner you see your doctor, the sooner you can get relief and treatment to help your symptoms resolve quicker and help avoid developing complications.
The exact cause of what triggers a shingles illness to develop in an individual is unknown. However, when the varicella-zoster virus reactivates, it can cause a debilitating and painful disease for anyone who contracts it.
Shingles are rarely life-threatening, but they can cause serious complications, particularly in older persons and those with weaker immune systems. If you think you may have shingles, see your doctor to get relief and help avoid spreading the varicella virus to others around you.
Shingles (Herpes zoster) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Shingles: Signs and symptoms | American Academy of Dermatology Association
Shingles vaccination | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention