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Your skin: Shingles

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. But shingles can emerge years after the original infection.

Shingles is a viral infection that causes rashes of small painful blisters on the skin.

Burning, tingling or sensitivity may be the first signs of the infection, occurring several days before a red rash appears. The blisters come next and usually last for two to four weeks. They most often appear on the torso or face, and usually on one side of the body.

The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. When chickenpox heals, the virus rests in the nerve cells. No one knows for sure why the virus "wakes up." However, a weakened immune system, stress and trauma have all been associated with the reemergence of the virus.

Treatment may include pain relievers and cool compresses. Antiviral medications may shorten the length and severity of the illness, especially if you start taking them as soon as the rash appears.

Shingles generally heals in a few weeks and rarely strikes the same person twice.

Some cases of shingles are followed by post-herpetic neuralgia. This condition causes persisting pain in the areas where the blisters were. It may last years and can be debilitating.

The blisters may also become infected, slowing the healing process. In rare cases blisters cover the whole body and a fever develops.

Shingles can be spread, but not easily. The virus can only get out if the blisters are broken. Even then, it can only infect a person who has never had chickenpox or chickenpox vaccine. And the infected person won't develop shingles—he or she will get chickenpox. Shingles only occurs when the virus is reactivated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the shingles vaccine for adults age 50 and older. If you're in this age group, talk to your healthcare provider about whether the vaccine is right for you.

Reviewed 4/1/2024

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