Jeffery Wheeler, M.D.
Shingles (herpes zoster) is a common condition in which the virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus) reactivates after years of lying dormant in your body. As the virus reactivates, it causes pain and tingling and eventually a rash of short-lived blisters.
"Shingles normally isn't a serious condition, but in some people the rash can cause an eye infection," explains Jeffery Wheeler, M.D., Mayo Clinic Health System family physician. "Vaccines can help reduce the risk of shingles, while early treatment can help shorten a shingles infection and lessen the chance of complications."
One complication is called postherpetic neuralgia, which can cause the skin to remain painful and sensitive to touch for months or years. When identified early, shingles can be treated with prescription medications that help shorten the infection and reduce the risk of complications.
Dr. Wheeler says signs and symptoms of shingles may include:
- A feeling of pain, burning, tingling, itching, numbness or extreme sensitivity in a limited area of your body
- A red rash with fluid-filled blisters that begins a few days after the pain and lasts two to three weeks before scabbing over and healing
- General feeling of unease and discomfort (malaise)
The shingles rash commonly occurs on one side of the trunk of your body. It often appears as a band of blisters that wraps from the middle of your back around one side of your chest to your breastbone, following the path of the nerve where the virus has been dormant. However, the rash can occur around one eye or on your neck or face.
A person with shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who isn't immune to chickenpox. This usually occurs through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. Once infected, the person will develop chickenpox, however, not shingles.
Chickenpox can be dangerous for some groups of people. Until your shingles blisters scab over, you are contagious and should avoid physical contact with:
- Anyone who has a weak immune system
- Pregnant women
"See your health care provider as soon as you notice symptoms of shingles. Prompt intervention can curtail the infection and possibly decrease your chances of complications," adds Dr. Wheeler.