How Long Do Shingles Last?

Jun 21, 2016

How Long Do Shingles Last?

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Viruses can be tricky adversaries. As if catching a disease once isn’t enough, the incredibly small globs of DNA to blame are remarkably intelligent in their tactics. Although it is commonly thought that diseases like chickenpox only strike a single time, the varicella-zoster virus responsible for making the condition arise again.

Length of Shingles Symptoms

Weakened immune systems in people who have already contracted varicella-zoster are susceptible to reactivating the virus as a condition known as shingles. The varicella-zoster is a form of herpes, possessing the ability to hibernate within host cells indefinitely. The molecular mechanisms at play allow the virus to travel through neurons and even take control of complex structures like human T cells and skin cells. Many scientists are still perplexed by how a relatively simple virus can accomplish this sequence of tasks. Shingles vary in their outward symptoms, severity, and lasting effects even after they’ve cleared up.

Prodromal Stage (Up to a week or more)

The first symptoms include pain, numbness, burning, itching, tingling, or any combination of these sensations around the affected areas of nerves and cells hosting the virus. It is likely for these sensations to stay constrained to a specific area such as the torso, head, face, neck, or a single arm or leg.

These pains are usually accompanied by flu-like symptoms. Chills, nausea, and a swelling of the lymph nodes can last anywhere from several days to a week before the active stage of the disease kicks in.

Active Stage (Up to 4 weeks)

About a week after the initial symptoms, rashes begin to appear where the pain had persisted. The rashes soon produce blisters, which become cloudy in a matter of 3 to 4 days. This blistering stage is followed by sharp, piercing pain. In about a week’s time, the blisters will burst and begin to crust over. It may be up to 4 weeks until the rash heals, however, scarring may occur.

Postherpetic Neuralgia (From a month to several years)

In most cases, the rashes and blisters clear up within a month, yet persistent pain may indicate postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This condition is thought to be mainly a result of nerve damage caused by herpes zoster as it develops beneath the skin.

Similar to the main symptoms of shingles, the pain associated with PHN can range from an intense biting, burning, or aching pain, to mild discomfort and even a hypersensitivity or decreased reaction to touch.

Mild PHN is usually treatable with over-the-counter painkillers. Other treatments include topical anesthetics or TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation).

Unfortunately, severe cases of PHN can be relatively difficult to treat without multiple prescriptions. Doctors will often prescribe anticonvulsants or tricyclic antidepressants depending on your current medications. Opioids are also commonly prescribed for severe pain, yet they are not without their associated risks.

The most severe cases of PHN may warrant a surgical nerve blocking procedure to subdue the pain. Always consult your physician or doctor before adding a new supplement or medication to your regimen to avoid any undesirable side effects.

Prevention

According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that half of the American population will have experienced shingles by 80 years of age. These figures aside, shingles can affect any age group, particularly individuals with lowered immune systems, history of an organ transplant, or other diseases like HIV.

If you come into contact with someone with shingles, be aware that their oozing blisters can transfer the disease if you have never contracted the varicella-zoster virus before. It is not until these sores have developed scabs that they are less likely to infect others. Becoming infected by someone with shingles will result in chickenpox.

Fortunately, there is a safe and effective vaccine available to keep the virus from reactivating when your immune system may be weak. The vaccine also reduces the risk of severe nerve pain from PHN if shingles do eventually develop.

It’s highly recommended that adults 60 years of age and older receive the vaccine in order to deny the further spread of this disease, so it’s a win-win situation.

Although the outward symptoms of shingles can last for several weeks at most, persistent pain as a result of PHN can last months, even years. Learning about the early symptoms of a disease can make treatment easier and more effective.

If it’s suspected that you or a loved one might be getting shingles, be sure to consult your physician for a comprehensive checkup.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is shingles life threatening?

Generally speaking, no, shingles is not life threatening. However, for persons with especially weakened immune systems shingles can cause complications which can then become life threatening. If you have shingles, it is important to speak with your doctor immediately so that they can ensure that your overall health is not in danger.

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Does Medicare cover the cost of the shingles vaccine?

Yes and no, it depends on which Medicare plan you are on. However, most of the Medicare plans cover all or part of the shingles vaccine. We recommend taking a look at your plan and then asking your doctor if you are covered. Receiving the shingles vaccine is a very important decision to make for seniors and can cut the risk of getting the disease nearly in half. 

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