Usually, it starts as a painful, tingly, or itchy sensation. Next comes the rash. But it’s not just a mild skin irritation. When shingles hits, you’ll feel it. This is because it’s almost always painful — sometimes excruciating.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection that causes a burning rash. The rash can also have a tingling, throbbing, or stabbing sensation. Your first question might be: How on Earth did I get this? Actually, it’s more common than you think.
Shingles vs. Chickenpox: What’s the Difference?
Shingles and chickenpox come from the same virus – varicella zoster. “If a person has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, coming into contact with the fluid in shingles blisters can result in the person becoming infected with the virus. This would cause the person to get chickenpox, not shingles. The body’s first exposure to the virus leads to chickenpox. Shingles is the consequence of having the virus reactivate in the body later on. Shingles is contagious, but it is the virus that is transmittable, not shingles,” explains Durvi Patel, MD, a physician at Penn Family Medicine Gibbsboro.
Both shingles and chickenpox will make you extremely uncomfortable in their own ways. They may both start as a rash but later shingles can turn into painful blisters, while chickenpox will give you an uncomfortable itch.
Shingles typically looks like a single stripe rash around the left or right side of the body, but it may also break out on your face or scalp. Before a rash even appears, shingles can often start with a fever or headache along with tingling, itching, or pain. And soon enough, you have the telltale rash.
Other symptoms may include:
- Upset stomach
If you had chickenpox as a child, you may not get it again in your adulthood, but you are still at the risk of getting shingles. Shingles is more than just adult chickenpox. Here are four reasons why you should take it seriously.
1. Shingles Knows No Age.
If you had the chickenpox as a child, the virus that causes it remains in your body, asleep, and it can wake up later when your immune system is compromised. You probably won’t get chickenpox twice but its twin will strike your body with painful blisters. Shingles can affect teenagers, young adults, and the elderly.
While shingles can strike at any age, the elderly at a higher risk.
2. Shingles May Cause Long-term Nerve Pain, So Get Treatment Right Away.
“The shingles virus attacks the nerves, so even if the rash has disappeared, the pain may persist for a long time. This is a common complication of shingles called postherpetic neuralgia. You may feel the pain when taking a shower, holding young children or infants, and while sleeping,” explains Dr. Patel.
Knowing the signs and symptoms can help speed up recovery and reduce the risk of long-term pain.
Shingles can take 3 to 5 weeks to clear up. But nerve pain could potentially continue long after the rash is gone.
3. You May Still Be at Risk of Getting Chickenpox From Someone With Shingles.
If you think chickenpox is a childhood infection and you aren’t at risk of getting it in adulthood, think again. In fact, people may get chickenpox from someone with shingles, if they have never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine.
So, if you have shingles, it’s best to stay away from people who may be more vulnerable to this virus, such as:
- Infants under 12 months
- Pregnant women
- People with compromised immune system
- Anyone who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
4. It’s Possible to Get Shingles More Than Once — but a Vaccine May Prevent This.
Unfortunately, you may not become immune to shingles after you have it. Although it’s rare, it is possible for the virus to reactivate a second or even third time.
If you’re over 50 and in good health, you can take steps to help prevent shingles. Talk with your healthcare provider about getting the shingles vaccine. This can lessen your chances of infection, reduce the severity of symptoms if you do get it, and reduce your chances of developing complications such as long-term nerve pain. “It is important to note that there was a new shingles vaccine (Shingrix) approved by the FDA in 2017. In most circumstances, this is preferred over the older vaccine called Zostavax. If you received the older vaccine, talk to your provider about the benefits of getting Shingrix,” says Dr. Patel.
Vaccination is still recommended even if you already had shingles.
You Have Shingles. Now What?
Shingles can be painful, but your health care provider may be able to prescribe an anti-viral and/or pain medication to help. An anti-viral medication is typically most helpful if your symptoms are spotted within 72 hours of onset. Ask your health care provider which medications might work for you.
You can also take these steps to manage shingles:
- Cover the rash loosely with a non-adhesive sterile bandage. Do not touch or scratch it.
- Keeping the area covered also helps prevent spreading the virus.
- Cool the area with ice packs; cool, wet cloths; or cool baths.
- Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing to keep your clothes from irritating the skin and worsening the pain.