Shingles are a medical condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Usually, it manifests as a rash on different body parts. While the most common place for the rash is at the waistline, it can also develop on your face, eyes, and genitals.
Around 1.5 million¹ American women will develop vulvar shingles in their lifetime. While rare, this condition can be extremely painful and uncomfortable. While there isn't a cure for vulvar shingles yet, it's possible to manage the symptoms during the outbreak.
Let's take a closer look at vulvar shingles symptoms and treatment.
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Vulvar shingle is a condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This virus enters the system when a person gets chickenpox and stays there for many years. In most cases, the immune system manages to suppress the virus. However, sometimes, it reactivates.
The longer the virus stays dormant, the more likely it is to break out. That's why shingles often appear in older people. While reactivation usually happens when the immune system isn't in its top shape, some young and healthy people face it.
Shingles in the vaginal area have the same symptoms as shingles in any other place. However, the location makes it extra uncomfortable.
It's important to speak to a doctor as soon as you notice the first signs of vulvar shingles. Timely treatment can help contain the outbreak and reduce unpleasant symptoms.
Vulvar shingles symptoms are the same as for other types of shingles. The only difference is the location of the rash. These include:
Blisters filled with fluid
Pain in the genital area
Tingling and itching
Numbness of the skin
Chills and fever
Before the rash appears, you can experience pain, burning, and tingling sensation in the vulva area. In a few days, a rash will appear. Some people report an "electrical sensation" in the place of the would-be rash.
Once the blistering rash develops, the pain continues. Sometimes, the rash can be so painful that it's impossible to touch it, even to put on topical cream. In a few weeks (usually between two and four), the rash dries, crusts, and heals.
During the outbreak, blisters can break and bleed. At this point, there is a risk of secondary infection. It's imperative to get medical attention and have the doctor monitor your condition.
A common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). When the rash is gone, the place where it used to be can continue hurting.
In some cases, the pain, tingling, and burning come and go. In others, it's constant. Some people live with PHN for months or even years. A doctor can help you manage the symptoms to improve your quality of life.
PHN treatment can include anticonvulsants, antidepressants, topical pain relievers, nerve blocks, spinal cord stimulation, and more. The earlier you start managing PHN, the easier it is to control.
To improve your chances of avoiding PHN, you must start treating vulvar shingles within three days of developing a rash.
To diagnose vulvar shingles, your doctor will:
Examine your medical history to check if you have had chickenpox
Examine the rash
Since shingles rashes have unique characteristics, they are easy to diagnose. However, in complex cases, a doctor may run a shingles test. It involves taking a rash sample with a swab and sending it to the lab for confirmation.
Once you have a diagnosis, the doctor can decide on the course of treatment. It can include:
Antiviral medication: This therapy is usually reserved for people who are over 60 or have immune system issues. This medication is the most effective when taken at the early stages of the condition.
Calamine lotion: The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends using calamine lotion on shingles because it soothes the pain and itching.
Topical lidocaine: Some doctors may prescribe topical lidocaine if vulvar shingles cause painful urination.
Pain relievers: You can take over-the-counter medication to relieve pain during the shingles outbreak. The doctor may also prescribe other pain relievers.
The course of treatment for vulvar shingles may depend on many factors, including your age, the duration of the condition, and the extent of your symptoms. The treatment aims to reduce unpleasant symptoms and allow the condition to play out without complications.
Since the official name of shingles is herpes zoster, many people worry that it's just as contagious as herpes. However, these are two different viruses. Vulvar shingles can't pass from person to person even if you have sexual contact during the outbreak.
You can only contract vulvar shingles from another person if you've never had chickenpox and come into direct contact with an open blister. If you've had chickenpox before, you can't contract shingles from another person.
Keep in mind that open blisters are a gateway for infection. So, if you have shingles in the vaginal area, it's important to keep it clean. This may include abstaining from sexual contact until the blister heals.
Today, it's possible to prevent vulvar shingles by getting vaccinated.
If you haven't had chickenpox before, your doctor may recommend getting vaccinated. While the best time to get the chickenpox vaccine is during childhood, adults can also benefit from it.
Vaccination can prevent the varicella-zoster virus from entering your body, thus minimizing your chance of getting shingles.
The CDC² recommends all adults over 50 years of age get the shingles vaccine. You can get vaccinated earlier if you are older than 19 but have a weakened immune system. Besides offering strong protection against shingles, the vaccine can also prevent PHN.
The vaccine called Shingrix is over 90% effective against shingles. The effect lasts for at least seven years after vaccination.
Speak to your doctor about vaccination options that suit your individual medical history.
Vulvar shingle is a rare condition that causes pain and discomfort in the vaginal area. While there isn't a cure yet, it's possible to manage the symptoms and reduce the discomfort, especially if you start treatment early.
If you have vulvar shingles symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. The faster you begin therapy, the easier it will be to contain the outbreak and prevent complications.
Yes, the condition is called vulvar shingles. The shingles rash appears in the vaginal area and causes pain and discomfort. Treatment options are the same as for regular shingles.
Yes, you develop a rash in your vaginal area during a vulvar shingles outbreak. This rash can cause pain, tingling, and itching.
While you can't cure vulvar shingles, you can control the symptoms and wait for the outbreak to subside. The treatment can include antiviral medication, topical pain relievers, over-the-counter pain relievers, and calamine lotion.
Shingles vaccination | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Herpes zoster of the vulva (1972)
Shingles | National Institute on Aging
Shingles: Signs and symptoms | Amerian Academy of Dermatology Association
Chickenpox vaccination: What everyone should know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Chickenpox vaccine and shingles risk | History of Vaccines