Doctors don't fully understand what triggers shingles to break out. Shingles is a nerve inflammation brought to you by the varicella-zoster virus. That's the same virus that gives us chickenpox. Once most folks get chickenpox they never get it again. Approximately a third of people who've had chickenpox go on to have a reactivation of the virus later in life, which is known as shingles.
After the initial infection known as chickenpox, the varicella virus stays dormant in the nerves. Advancing age, decreased immunity and chronic health problems may reactivate the virus that appears in the form a painful rash, often following a particular nerve.
Shingles outbreaks usually clear up in one to three weeks, but some people may have persistent pain at the site that may last months. It's important to seek treatment as soon as you think it might be shingles. Here are some hallmarks of shingles that should encourage you to see a doctor.
These images are for educational purposes only and not intended for diagnosis.
The blisters that blossom during an outbreak of shingles resemble the same blisters that show up during an outbreak of chickenpox. They usually start as itchy bumps, rupture and then get crusty before they finally disappear. Chickenpox, however, shows up all over the body. Since this is the same virus as chickenpox, folks who have never had chickenpox can catch it from someone suffering from shingles.
Shingles outbreaks follow major nerves. It's pretty obvious when the rash is really going strong. In this case, the shingles rash is following what looks like the lower spinal nerves, which run from the base of the spine, around the leg and down to the knee.
A shingles rash can expand along an entire nerve or just be a small cluster like the picture above. If you see a rash running along a path that typically has a nerve running through it -- but only on one side of the body -- you should be very suspicious that it might be shingles.
Shingles includes symptoms that come before the rash develops. Worse, shingles can have long lasting pain and other complications if not treated soon enough.
Shingles starts as an itchy, tingly, burning or simply pain. It might start on the face, chest or back. It could also be wrapped around one side of the body or the waist. There could be a fever or weakness, but there doesn't have to be.
After about 48 hours the rash can form. Sometimes the rash will be the large rashes pictured above and sometimes it will be those small clusters on the back or face. It can even be simply half the tongue or just one eye and part of the forehead. No matter what, shingles only affects one side -- not both.
Shingles pain is legendary. Patients describe it as super sensitive skin that hurts with just the lightest touch. The pain can last a long time if shingles isn't treated early, so it's very important to seek treatment as soon as you think it might be shingles.
Besides seeking treatment as early as possible, folks can avoid chickenpox as well as shingles by getting vaccinated. There are vaccines available for both conditions.