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Shingles


Alternative Names:

Herpes zoster

Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

After you get chickenpox, the virus remains inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Shingles occurs after the virus becomes active again in these nerves after many years.

The reason the virus suddenly becomes active again is not clear. Often only one attack occurs.

Shingles can develop in any age group. You are more likely to develop the condition if:

  • You are older than 60
  • You had chickenpox before age 1
  • Your immune system is weakened by medications or disease

If an adult or child has direct contact with the shingles rash and did not have chickenpox as a child or the chickenpox vaccine, they can develop chickenpox, not shingles.

Signs and tests:

Your health care provider can make the diagnosis by looking at your skin and asking about your medical history.

Tests are rarely needed, but may include taking a skin sample to see if the skin is infected with the virus.

Blood tests may show an increase in white blood cells and antibodies to the chickenpox virus. But the tests cannot confirm that the rash is due to shingles.

Treatment:

Your health care provider may prescribe a medicine that fights the virus, called an antiviral drug. This drug helps reduce pain, prevent complications, and shorten the course of the disease.

The medicines should be started within 72 hours of when you first feel pain or burning. It is best to start taking them before the blisters appear. The medicines are usually given in pill form. Some people may need to receive the medicine through a vein (by IV).

Strong anti-inflammatory medicines called corticosteroids, such as prednisone, may be used to reduce swelling and pain. These medicines do not work in all patients.

Other medicines may include:

  • Antihistamines to reduce itching (taken by mouth or applied to the skin)
  • Pain medicines
  • Zostrix, a cream containing capsaicin (an extract of pepper) to reduce pain

Follow your health care provider's instructions about how to care for yourself at home.

Other measures may include:

  • Caring for your skin by applying cool, wet compresses to reduce pain, and taking soothing baths.
  • Resting in bed until the fever goes down

Stay away from people while your sores are oozing to avoid infecting those who have never had chickenpox -- especially pregnant women.

Expectations (prognosis):

Herpes zoster usually clears in 2 to 3 weeks and rarely returns. If the virus affects the nerves that control movement (the motor nerves), you may have temporary or permanent weakness or paralysis.

Sometimes the pain in the area where the shingles occurred may last from months to years. This pain is called postherpetic neuralgia.

It occurs when the nerves have been damaged after an outbreak of shingles. Pain ranges from mild to very severe. Postherpetic neuralgia is more likely to occur in persons over age 60. 

Possible Complications:

Complications may include:

  • Another attack of shingles
  • Bacterial skin infections
  • Blindness (if shingles occurs in the eye)
  • Deafness
  • Infection, including encephalitis of sepsis (blood infection) in persons with a weakened immune system
  • Ramsay Hunt syndrome if shingles affects the nerves of the face/ear
Calling your health care provider:

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of shingles, particularly if you have a weakened immune system or if your symptoms persist or worsen. Shingles that affects the eye may lead to permanent blindness if you do not receive emergency medical care.

Prevention:

Do not touch the rash and blisters on persons with shingles or chickenpox if you have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.

A herpes zoster vaccine is available. It is different than the chickenpox vaccine. Older adults who receive the herpes zoster vaccine are less likely to have complications from shingles.

 
References:

Cohen J. Varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox, shingles). In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 383.

Habif TP.Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby; 2009:chap 12.


Review Date: 6/6/2013
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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