Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. Anyone who has had chicken pox can develop herpes zoster.   After the chicken pox clear, the virus remains dormant (inactive) within certain nerve cells of the body.  When the virus reactivates, zoster, which can be quite painful, develops. It is not clear what reactivates or “awakens” the virus.  A temporary weakness in immunity (the body’s ability to fight infection) may cause the virus to multiply and move along nerve fibers toward the skin. Illness, trauma, and stress may trigger zoster.

Zoster typically causes more pain and less itching than chicken pox.  A person may feel burning, itching, tingling, or extreme sensitivity on the skin (usually limited to an area on one side of the body).  These symptoms are typically present for one to three days, sometimes more, before a red rash appears in the same area.  A zoster rash usually occurs on only one side of the body.  A fever or headache also may develop.

The rash soon turns into groups of blisters, which generally last for two to three weeks.  At first the blisters are clear, but then look yellow or bloody before they crust over (scab) and disappear.

How can shingles be treated?

Shingles usually clears on its own in a few weeks and seldom recurs.  While zoster is clearing, pain relievers can help ease the discomfort, and cool compresses may provide soothing relief.  When diagnosed early (within 72 hours), oral anti-viral medication can be prescribed. To reduce swelling and pain, a corticosteroid may be prescribed along with the anti-viral medication.  A corticosteroid also can help alleviate inflammation.