Most of us had chicken pox when we were children. Memories of oatmeal baths and calamine lotion problem come to mind. Shingles are the adult version of chicken pox and typically have more intense and longer-lasting symptoms. Even if you developed chicken pox when you were younger, you still may contract the shingles rash. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but the chickenpox virus (also called herpes zoster virus) may lay dormant for even decades then becomes reactivated causing shingles. Here’s what you should know about shingles pain and how you can manage it.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, affects approximately 1 million people each year in the United States. People often mistake the ailment for something else such as sunburn, allergies or infection. But there are other common side effects aside from itchiness and rashes that are strong indicators of contraction. Shingles symptoms include:
- Fluid-filled blisters
- Vision loss
- Sensitivity to light and touch
These symptoms may manifest as quickly as overnight. Key signs to watch out for are sudden skin redness or raised dots particularly on one part of your body. After the rash develops, blisters will form. Do note you are contagious for 7-10 until the blisters crust over.
What causes shingles?
Shingles come from the same sources as chicken pox: the varicella zoster virus. For most people, they encounter the virus as children. But even after recovery, it stays in your nerve tissues inside the spinal cord and brain. The virus may remain dormant for decades before it becomes reactivated.
This is the key difference between chickenpox and shingles. Whereas chicken pox is a highly contagious disease that can be spread easily, you can’t catch shingles from another person. Instead, you must have already been exposed to chickenpox at some point where your nervous system harbors it. Once reactivated, it causes the variety of above-mentioned painful symptoms. This time, since the virus is more deeply rooted in your body it creates more intense and painful effects.
So how is shingles contagious?
Shingles cannot be passed to people, but the virus that causes shingles “can spread from a person with active shingles to cause chickenpox in someone who had never had chickenpox or received chickenpox vaccine.” The virus can be spread when there is “direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters caused by shingles.”
People who have shingles can spread the virus when it’s active and when the rash is in the blister-phase. If there are no visible blisters, there is no risk of passing the virus. When those blisters develop crusts, there is no longer a risk of infection.
Who is at risk of shingles?
Over 95% of adults are at risk of developing shingles. The condition typically occurs in people who are 50 years and older, affecting nearly 1/3 of the United States population. When it comes to developing common complications of shingles, your risk increases at the age of 60.
Although doctors still aren’t sure what causes shingles to reactivate, there are some contributing factors that may lead to an outbreak. They include:
- Age: typically individuals 50 or older
- Weakened immune system
- Cancer, HIV or other diseases which reduce your immune system function
- Long-term steroid or drug use which also weakens your immune system
There is a shingles vaccine which has been proven to be effective in reducing the chances of contraction in about 90% of patients. The CDC recommends that adults who are 50 years and older and are in good health get 2 doses of the shingles vaccine. These doses not only protect against shingles but they also protect against common complications.
Along with this, people who contract the virus “usually have a shorter illness compared to unvaccinated people who get varicella.” For this reason, doctors recommend the vaccination to most adults over age 60.
Although the shingles vaccination targets the same herpes zoster virus, it’s not the same thing as the chickenpox vaccination. So if you received a chickenpox vaccination as a child, you still will need it.
Learn more about the shingles vaccine below:
How to manage life with shingles
There is no cure for shingles. Treatment for shingles includes antiviral medicines that can shorten how long the illness lasts and how severe the illness is. It’s important to begin taking these medicines as soon as you notice a rash. You can treat the shingles pain and itchiness with:
- pain relievers
- oatmeal baths
- wet cloth or compress
- calamine lotion
Like most conditions, what you should know about shingles pain is that the best way to manage it is rest. If you need to, take time off from work. Be sure to eat regular, healthy meals. In some cases, where symptoms occur near the eye or facial nerves, your health care team may also recommend using corticosteroids such as prednisone.
The earlier you catch the disease, the more your health care team can do to help you manage your symptoms. When treated early, this can also prevent the risk of postherpetic neuralgia by 50%.
Postherpetic neuralgia is when shingles pain lasts even after the rash heals. The pain varies between mild and severe and intensity and in more serious causes lead to insomnia, depression and other problems. Twenty percent of people age 70 or older may develop the condition. However, it is not life-threatening and can get better over time given the proper treatment so be sure to consult with your doctor if you are suffering from neuralgia php or at risk for it.
What you should know about shingles pain
The bottom line is that shingles is just like the chicken pox. It’s painful and itchy, but typically the worst symptoms only last 7-10 days. However, if you are over age 60, have a widespread breakout or at risk for developing shingles, be sure to contact your health care team right away. They can put you on the best course of treatment to help you recover quickly, prevent long-lasting side effects and get you back on the road to good health.
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This post has been updated in January 2019 with new information and resources.