Shingles is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the herpes virus responsible for chickenpox. Once an individual has been infected with chickenpox, this virus lies dormant within the body's nerve tissue. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles, often after another illness or during a period of great stress. Advancing age and immune deficiency disorders are also risk factors for shingles.
Shingles most commonly presents as a painful rash of fluid-filled blisters wrapping around the back and chest, typically affecting only one side of the body. It is possible, however, for patients to have shingles with only a very mild rash or even no rash at all. Early treatment for shingles may minimize symptoms and prevent complications.
Since shingles affects the nerves, patients may experience a wide variety of sensations at the affected site, including shooting pain, itching, burning and numbness. Additional symptoms of the disorder may include headache, fever, fatigue and body aches. The shingles rash usually lasts for several weeks to as much as a month. For most individuals, the pain lessens as the rash heals. Some patients, however, experience long-term nerve pain after a case of shingles, pain which may linger for more than a year.
Normally the doctor diagnoses shingles by an examination of the rash and a discussion of the patient's symptoms. If blisters are present at the time of the examination, the doctor may take a sample of fluid for a laboratory culture. Treatment of shingles consists of the use of analgesics and antiviral medications. The former provide symptom relief and the latter may shorten the course of the illness or lessen the severity of the symptoms.
While shingles is not a life-threatening disease, it can be extremely painful and interfere greatly with normal activities and quality of life. A shingles vaccine is now available and recommended for individuals age 60 and older. While not preventative of the reactivation of the shingles virus in all cases, it has been demonstrated to greatly reduce the risk of an outbreak, as well as to lessen the severity of the disease should it occur.