Shingles Symptoms & Diagnosis
If you have had chickpox, then a shingles outbreak may be in your future. Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox.
After you recover from chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in your nerve roots. In some people, it stays dormant for the rest of their lives. In others, the virus can be reactivated when the immune system is weakened, possibly by disease, aging, or stress. Why some people get shingles and others do not is not fully understood, but most doctors believe the immune system and stress can play a role in shingles outbreaks.
The first symptoms of shingles are often sharp, burning pain, tingling, or numbness in your skin on one side of your body or face. Shingles most commonly appears on the back or upper abdomen and sometimes on the facial area. It can also cause severe itching or aching rather than pain.
Because they tend to follow nerve paths, the blisters are usually found in a line. Often times, these lines extend from the back or flank around to the abdomen, just on one side, but shingles never crosses the midline of the body. (The word ‘shingles’ even comes from the Latin word for ‘belt’ or ‘girdle.’) The rash also may appear on one side of your face – some people may develop painful eye inflammations and infections.
In patients with normal immune systems, shingles rarely leads to hospitalizations, usually clears up in a few weeks, and seldom recurs. However, there are several complications that you should know about:
- Postherpetic Neuralgia (PHN): People with PHN have pain & tingling that lasts for weeks, months, or even years after the skin outbreak has healed. Using medicine may help reduce the duration of PHN.
- Infections: Blisters can become infected by bacteria. You should suspect this has happened if the pain and redness suddenly become worse or go away and then return. Antibiotics may be necessary to treat these bacterial infections.
- Scarring: Shingles carries a risk of scarring the skin if the blisters become infected with bacteria. Both situations pose a risk of getting into the eyes and causing permanent damage.
While the symptoms of shingles are often quite gruesome, recognizing the symptoms and beginning treatment as quickly as possible is essential to avoiding complications.