Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

Jun 21, 2016

Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

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As a child, you may recall the seemingly random occurrence of breaking out into a spotted mess of red, itchy blisters, and feverish aches. This uncomfortable time was a case of the widely contracted virus, varicella-zoster, commonly known as chickenpox. Now in your older years, the memory of such a crummy excuse for missing school appears to have found you again; the sores, the itching, the fevers, and aches. Unfortunately, the varicella-zoster virus never fully leaves its host cells, hibernating indefinitely until reactivating as a condition known as shingles.

It’s estimated by the National Institutes of Health that half of the American population will develop shingles by age 80. For people who have already had chickenpox, shingles are not contagious. However, without the varicella-zoster virus present in your system, shingles can cause chickenpox in any age group.

Due to its high potential of contagiousness, the varicella-zoster virus (also referred to as herpes zoster) is extremely important to monitor if it is suspected that you or a loved one have contracted it in some form. Knowing the symptoms of shingles can help you to both limit the spread of the disease, and to seek proper medical treatment or other preventative measures.

The Stages and Symptoms of Shingles

The symptoms of shingles come in several stages and variations. Depending on any existing conditions and factors such as a weakened immune system, HIV, or a history of an organ transplant, you may be at greater risk of developing a medically serious case of shingles. 

First (Prodromal) Symptoms

Unlike chickenpox, which covers the entire body, shingles appears on distinct sections of one’s skin. Before the later symptoms, a tingling sensation or burning pain may be felt on one side of the body. Sufferers may also experience a hypersensitivity to touch and intense itching. Likely areas to develop shingles include the torso, neck, or face. It is most common for shingles blisters to appear on the torso, wrapping around the waist, hence the term shingles is derived from the Latin word cingulum, meaning belt.

Primary Symptoms

The outward, most obvious symptoms of shingles are the development of raised blisters where the initial rashes and discomfort had persisted. Soon after their appearance, the blisters burst to release their contagious fluids. If infected, anyone who had not formerly contracted the varicella-zoster virus would get chickenpox, whereas current hosts for the virus are unable to contract it a second time. Shingles remains mostly contagious up until the point where the blisters develop their protective scabs and cease to discharge fluids.

In addition to the unwelcomed blistering, it is common for shingles to cause nerve pain along the path of the affected area. People have reported sharp, stabbing sensations to dull aching discomfort depending on the severity of the disease.

Lasting Effects and Symptoms

Although shingles outbreaks are temporary, there can be some lasting effects. 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 more mild discomfort, even a hypersensitivity or decreased reaction to touch.

Most mild cases of PHN can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers, however, more severe cases can be harder to subdue. It is often difficult to find a reliable method of relieving severe PHN without multiple prescriptions due to cross-tolerances and possible side effects.

Anticonvulsants and tricyclic antidepressants are common medications used to combat intense nerve pain, as well as common opioids. Although these drugs are not without their risks, be sure to consult your doctor to know if they are right for you, especially you’re if already prescribed other medications.

Symptoms Overview

  • A tingling sensation or burning pain is felt on one side of the body, likely the torso, neck, or face. This is often accompanied by headaches, fevers, or a fatigued achiness.
  • Raised, reddish and bumpy rashes start to appear, often on the same side of the body or face where the initial pain was felt.
  • After a few days, the rash develops into fluid-filled blisters resembling chickenpox that ooze and eventually crust over. Mild to intense nerve pain is likely.
  • Any pain persisting beyond the main symptoms may be postherpetic neuralgia. Check with your doctor for treatment options and remedies.

Let’s keep the shingles on the roof, shall we?

People with contagious shingles must take extra precautions not to expose themselves to pregnant women. The varicella-zoster virus has been shown to cause serious risks like pneumonia and birth defects if contracted. Even if the sores and blisters have mostly healed over, there is still a risk that newborns or anyone else with a weak immune system might catch the disease.

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.

As with many diseases, catching symptoms early can make treatment easier and more effective. The likelihood of contracting shingles does increase with age, however, this disease is preventable with the right information and medical guidance.

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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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