If you had chickenpox as a child, the virus that caused it is still lying dormant in your body and, under certain conditions, may be reactivated and resurface as a condition known as "shingles."

No one knows exactly why the chickenpox virus, also known as varicella zoster or herpes zoster, sometimes reappears later in life as "shingles," a painful, belt-like band of a blistering rash across one side of the face or body. But both psychological and physical stresses are thought to be underlying causes. Physical stress results from surgery, injury, infection, or illness that weakens your immune system, paving the way for reactivation of the varicella zoster virus.

"I have even seen shingles in children and teens who are stressed," says Liesa Harte, MD, an internist in Austin, TX. "It's not just an adult condition."

Although shingles is contagious to those who have never had chickenpox, it can only be transferred by contact with the blister fluid, either directly by touch or indirectly by such activities such as sharing a towel with someone who is actively infected. If you "catch" the virus, you will not get shingles, however, you will get chickenpox. Once you have chickenpox, you can develop shingles at a later date.

Symptoms of Shingles

Most often, shingles appears as a rash on one side of your back or around you waist, and may also appear on one side of your face. Symptoms include burning pain or itching, along with tingling or numbness in the affected area. Fatigue, fever, chills, headache, and stomachache may accompany these initial symptoms. Occasionally, shingles surfaces without a rash or blisters.

Within several days, the affected skin will turn red, and small blisters will appear. Over the course of two or three weeks, the blisters will turn from clear to yellow, get crusty and eventually disappear. The pain may linger for a month or two after the blisters heal. The older you are, the more painful shingles can be, and the longer it can take for the blisters to heal and the pain to go away. In some cases the pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia, may never completely go away.

Treating Shingles

If you suspect you have shingles, see your doctor at the first sign. Early treatment can reduce the length and severity of the attack. Over-the-counter painkillers may help, but your doctor may prescribe stronger painkillers as well as antibacterial creams or ointments to prevent or control infection in the blistered area.

Your doctor may also prescribe antiviral medication that can help reduce blistering and help you heal more quickly. Antiviral medications can also prevent the tingling, pain, and numbness that can follow an outbreak of shingles and last months or even years after the rash disappears.

This post-rash condition is most common in people who experience a shingles outbreak after age 50. If you develop a rash on your face, your doctor may also prescribe corticosteroid medication to reduce inflammation and help prevent the condition from traveling to your eye or ear, causing further damage.

If the rash affects your eye, you should see a doctor immediately to minimize the risk of vision complications.

Self-care is just as helpful and important as medical treatment. To help alleviate pain and encourage blisters to heal:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Avoid stressful situations
  • Eat nutritious, well-balanced meals
  • Take steps to distract yourself from pain
  • Discuss the use of topical painkillers with your doctor
  • Cover blisters with a cool, damp cloth as a compress to soothe your skin when not using topical medications (throw away compresses or wash carefully to avoid spreading the infection.)

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.




Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Shingles (Herpes Zoster)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Shingles: Hope Through Research