Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it most often appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or the right side of your torso.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
While it isn’t a life-threatening condition, shingles can be very painful. Vaccines can help reduce the risk of shingles, while early treatment can help shorten a shingles infection and lessen the chance of complications.
The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body. These signs and symptoms may include:
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
- Sensitivity to touch
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
Some people also experience:
- Sensitivity to light
Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some, it can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, it can sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs or kidneys. Some people experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash.
Most commonly, the shingles rash develops as a stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso. Sometimes the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
Shingles is usually diagnosed based on the history of pain on one side of your body, along with the telltale rash and blisters. Your doctor may also take a tissue scraping or culture of the blisters for examination in the laboratory.
There’s no cure for shingles, but prompt treatment with prescription antiviral drugs can speed healing and reduce your risk of complications. These medications include:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
Shingles can cause severe pain, so your doctor also may prescribe:
- Capsaicin cream
- Anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin (Neurontin)
- Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline
- Numbing agents, such as lidocaine, delivered via a cream, gel, spray or skin patch
- Medications that contain narcotics, such as codeine
- An injection including corticosteroids and local anesthetics
Shingles generally lasts between two and six weeks. Most people get shingles only once, but it is possible to get it two or more times