Swollen Lymph Nodes And Shingles: Is There A Connection?

Lymph nodes play a vital role in the immune system. Each no larger than a baked bean, these ovoid glands are responsible for filtering the lymphatic fluid and have an important immune function.

They also help the body fight infection and disease, as antigens (substances foreign to the body) are bound by the lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell found in lymph glands and elsewhere), which help to remove them from the body.

It is common for people to detect swollen lymph nodes in their armpits, neck, and groin. Usually, this is a sign that the immune system is reacting to an antigen. However, swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of a more serious issue, like shingles or cancer.

Let’s look at the connection between shingles and swollen lymph nodes and when you should consult your doctor.

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What are shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral infection that creates painful rashes on the skin. This condition is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chicken pox.

Chickenpox often affects children. But, after the infection, the virus remains in your neural system and can lay dormant for many years. The virus can reactivate later in life, causing shingles. This condition is more common in older adults or people whose immune systems have been compromised by illness, medication, or physical trauma.

Do shingles affect the lymphatic system?

As mentioned earlier, shingle are a viral condition that manifests as a painful rash on the skin. The shingles rash usually manifests as a band of small, fluid-filled blisters, similar to those caused by chicken pox, on either the right or left side of the body, not crossing the midline.

The band of blisters is often limited to a single dermatome, an area of the skin ‘served’ by nerves from a single spinal root. The rash usually appears on one side of the face, neck, or around the eye, but it can appear anywhere. Eventually, the blisters will burst open, ooze, or dry up.

Over 600 lymph nodes exist throughout different parts of the body, including the bowels, abdomen, torso, groin, armpits, and neck. Each lymph node is connected via lymphatic capillaries that transport lymph, a clear, watery fluid containing lymphocytes. The fluid travels through the lymph nodes and vessels before being filtered and returned to the bloodstream.

Note that swollen lymph nodes usually appear in the infected region. However, it is not always easy to pinpoint the affected area by swollen lymph nodes alone without the help of a healthcare professional.

What are the common symptoms of shingles?

Common symptoms of shingles often affect a small area on one side of the body. These signs could include the following:

  • A painful rash with a tingling or burning sensation within a dermatome

  • Tender to touch

  • Itchiness

  • Fluid-filled blisters that open, dry up and eventually fall off

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. However, it is vital to note that symptoms vary based on the stage of the infection. Here is a brief overview of the stages of shingles:

Pre-eruptive (prodromal) phase

This stage often occurs approximately 48 hours before the rashes appear on the skin. The main symptom during this phase is pain, often described as stabbing, burning, or prickling.

Acute eruptive stage

Within two to three days of the onset of pain, a blistery rash starts to show, typically on one side of the body.

Postherpetic neuralgia (complication)

Only 10%–18% of people diagnosed with shingles suffer from postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a complication defined as persistent pain for 90 days after infection. Studies show that PHN is likely to appear in people over 60 diagnosed with shingles.¹

How to treat shingles

Once your doctor assesses your symptoms by performing a physical evaluation, blood tests, swab tests, or looking through your medical history, they will be able to determine whether you have shingles.

Although there is no cure for shingles, various treatment options can help alleviate the symptoms and shorten the duration of the condition. Some effective treatment methods for shingles include:

Prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication

Since shingles are painful, your doctor may recommend prescription or OTC painkillers. These may include:

  • Numbing agents

  • Opioids

  • NSAIDs

  • Topical calamine

Antiviral drugs

These medications help speed up the healing process and reduce the risk of further complications. Common antiviral medicines used to treat shingles include:

  • Famciclovir (Famvir)

  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)

  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Home remedies

There are also several self-care remedies that you can use to ease the symptoms of shingles, including:

  • Consuming a healthy diet 

  • Taking cool baths and placing cold compresses on the blisters to relieve pain and itchiness

  • Avoid alcohol and smoking

  • Staying hydrated

Shingles prevention

Statistics show that over 99% of Americans over the age of 40 have had chicken pox. This means they are at risk of getting shingles. Luckily, there are several ways to prevent shingles.²

For people over 50, there is a recommended vaccine for shingles under the brand name Shingrix, administered in two doses. Studies show the Shingrix vaccine is at least 90% effective in preventing shingles, and its protection remains above 85% for a minimum of four years after receiving the shot.³

The lowdown

Shingles are common among people over 60 years of age. However, anyone who has had chickenpox before is at risk of developing shingles. Luckily, several effective treatment options can speed up the healing process and provide comfort quickly.

The best way to prevent shingles is by taking the Shingrix vaccine or if you haven’t had chickenpox yet, the VZV vaccine.

Frequently asked questions

Are swollen lymph nodes a side effect of the Shingrix vaccine?

Some patients have reported swollen lymph nodes at the injection site that last from a few days to several weeks.

How can you reduce swelling in lymph nodes?

An effective way to reduce swelling in lymph nodes is by applying a warm, moist compress to the affected region.

What else can cause swollen lymph nodes?

Some common causes of swollen lymph nodes include abscessed teeth, measles, strep throat, HIV, infections, Lyme disease, wound or skin infections, leukemia, lymphoma, cancer, and other illnesses.

  1. Postherpetic neuralgia: Epidemiology, pathophysiology, and pain management pharmacology (2016)

  2. What everyone should know about zostavax | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  3. Shingles vaccination | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Other sources:

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