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You may have the shingles virus living inside you at this very minute. When the virus reactivates, it can cause symptoms including a painful rash.

A virus that can remain in your body long after symptoms of the illness have resolved may sound frightening, but the shingles virus does just that.

The Virus That Remains Inside

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. [1]

When a person becomes infected with chickenpox, they develop symptoms such as fever, headache, and a sore throat. The infection also causes an itchy, red rash. The rash starts as small, red bumps, which may look similar to an insect bite. The bumps develop into fluid-filled blisters that eventually burst and scab over. Although any age group can be affected by chickenpox, it is much more common in children. [1]

Most people who get chickenpox recover in a week or two. What is unusual about the virus is it stays in the body. Although the virus remains in the body, it is dormant, which means it is not active and does not cause illness. For reasons that are not fully understood, however, the virus can become active again, and when it does, it causes shingles.

The exact reason the virus reactivates is not clear, but having a condition which weakens the immune system is considered a risk factor. For example, people who are undergoing treatment for cancer are at an increased risk of developing shingles. The immune system may also be lower during times of stress. The risk of the virus reactivating also increases with age. [2]

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, people over the age of 50 get shingles more often than younger adults. [3]  

Symptoms of shingles usually start with tingling or pain in one specific area of the body. After a few days, a rash appears where the pain was. The rash, which later forms blisters, usually appears on one side of the body, and the face and truck are often affected. After about ten days, the blisters form scabs. Additional symptoms may also occur and include fever, an upset stomach, chills, and headache.

Treatment For Shingles

Treatment for shingles is administered to ease symptoms and decrease the severity of the virus. Since shingles can be very painful, doctors prescribe pain medications. If over the counter pain medication is not helpful, prescription drugs may be needed. In some cases, pain from the shingles rash can last even after the rash has cleared. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids may help to decrease pain. [4]

Antiviral medication may be advised in some instances. There are different antiviral medications, which may be prescribed and started within 72 hours after the symptoms started. The medication does not cure the condition, but it can reduce the severity of the illness and decrease the amount of time the pain lasts. 

Side effects of antiviral medication are very uncommon, but can include [4]:

  • Feeling sick
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

Corticosteroids may also help decrease painful inflammation and may be recommended. 

Medications, including anesthetic creams and pain patches, may help. 

Certain types of anti-depressants and seizure medications also may reduce pain related to shingles. [4] 

Additional treatment will be needed if complications develop. For example, for lasting nerve pain from shingles, nerve blocks may be injected into the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms usually clear up in within four weeks.    

The Lasting Effects From Shingles 

In most cases, shingles are painful, but the condition clears in about a month. In some instances, complications lead to more serious and possibly long-lasting problems.

Shingles Complications  

Complications from shingles can be both short-term and long-lasting.

For example, a bacterial infection can develop. Staph is a very common bacterium, which can enter through an open blister. If a bacterial skin infection develops, it can slow down healing and prolong the pain. [5]

Shingles can also affect the eyes. Shingles can start in the eye or spread to the eye from the face. When the eye is infected, symptoms include redness in the eyes, blisters on the eyelids, and eye pain. People with shingles in the eye should see their doctor immediately. Scarring of the cornea can occur, which may damage vision and possibly lead to complete vision loss. [6]

One of the long-term complications of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia. It is also the most common complication of the condition. Post-herpetic neuralgia can cause pain, tingling, and numbness in various areas of the body. Additional symptoms may include decreased appetite, problems sleeping and fatigue. Symptoms of post-herpetic neuralgia may last for months or years. [7

Studies have also indicated that having shingles may increase your risk of having a heart attack by more than 40 percent in the future. Shingles cause inflammation. What researchers theorize is that the inflammation associated with the virus may travel to blood vessels in the body. The inflammation causes damage to the blood vessels carrying blood to the heart, which may later block flow and lead to a heart attack. [8]

Is The Shingles Vaccine Right For You?

There are things you can do to prevent getting the shingles virus. If you have never had chickenpox, speak to your doctor about getting the vaccine. In addition, there is also a shingles vaccine, which doctors recommend for certain age groups.

According to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, adults over the age of 60 should get a shingles vaccine. The older a person gets, the higher is the risk of getting shingles. That is why the vaccine is recommended for adults over the age of 60.  It is possible to get shingles more than once. People who have had the infection may still get the vaccine in order to prevent future infections with shingles. [9]

Although the vaccine is also approved for ages 50 to 59, there are no specific recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or other institutions for this age group. Individuals who are in their 50s and have a history of chickenpox should talk to their doctor and determine if the vaccine is the right choice for them.

Side effects from the vaccine are considered rare, but they can occur. The most common side effects include a headache and soreness at the vaccination site. Itching and redness at the injection site may also occur. [9]

In addition to getting the vaccine, the best way to reduce your chances of developing shingles is by keeping your immune system as strong as possible. Getting enough rest is always a great way to keep your immune system functioning well. Eating a healthy diet including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables also gives your immune system a boost.

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