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"Red bumps" are among the most common of all medical symptoms. Just knowing that you have some kind of skin irritation and it is red really isn't especially helpful, and by themselves red bumps aren't usually very serious. One type of red bump that can be very serious is shingles, which can attack when it is totally unexpected. 

How can you tell if "bumps" are actually shingles?

  • Typically the skin feels "tingly" a day or two before the bumps break out. This "prodrome" can last as long as 10 days. Some people just lose sensation in patches of skin.
  • As the skin condition progresses, there can be other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, sensitivity to light, migraine headaches, heart pain, or even appendicitis. 
  • Shingles occurs in patches (unless you are really unlucky). It doesn't cover an entire area of the body, usually. Shingles almost occur on just one side of the body. That's because they follow the nerve in which the virus has been dormant since the last active infection.
  • Shingles are most common on the torso, although they can occur anywhere on the body.
  • Shingles can cause severe burning, stabbing, or throbbing pain, no pain at all, or something in between. Not every finds shingles extremely painful, although many people do.
  • The "bumps" start out clear, but they turn red, crust over, and shrink over the course of about a month.
  • The pain caused by shingles may not go away even when the bumps clear up. It can last for weeks, months, or even years.

What's going on in shingles is a strong immune reaction (it's actually your own the body that causes the symptoms, not the virus) to a virus that has been dormant for a very long time, typically years or decades, inside a nerve. Usually but not always a Varicella virus, which also causes chickenpox, is reawakened by some outward event:

  • Your immune system is distressed by another infection, radiation, or chemotherapy. It's as if the virus has been lying in wait for an opportunity to attack your body when your defenses are on the wane. The immune system has a variety of components, some of which can still generate inflammation even after others are no longer able to fight infection.
  • You contract HIV. While shingles is common in HIV patients, HIV is not common in shingles patients.
  • You experience severe emotional distress.
  • You are reexposed to the virus by coming in contact with someone who has active chickenpox.

Shingles are most a condition in the elderly, but they occur in up to 7 percent of people under the age of 50 who have asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, largely because of the effects medications for those conditions have on the immune system.

If you have shingles, you need to see a doctor. There are medications that can reduce the pain and help the bumps heal a lot faster. You are also a lot less likely to suffer permanent problems from shingles if you get medical treatment. Even if you don't remember ever having chickenpox, see your doctor. You can have a very mild case of chickenpox that didn't cause breakouts on your skin that leads to a severe case of shingles that does.

If bumps aren't shingles, what can they be?

  • Allergies. These bumps will come on suddenly, without several days of tingling. You will probably be able to remember a specific trigger to the allergy.
  • Irritant dermatitis. This condition causes the skin to break out after exposure to an irritant chemical, and won't be limited to one side of the body.
  • Eczema. If it's eczema, it will be itchy, it won't stay on one side of your body, and it will be very responsive to moisture in your skin. If you keep your skin moist with a water-based moisturizer, your symptoms will improve.
  • Furuncles. These are bacterial infections in hair follicles, but usually in a single hair follicle at a time. You won't have bunches of them, and they won't follow the pathway of a nerve.
  • Insect bites. These bumps may occur in lines, but they won't travel up and down the body the way an outbreak from a nerve will.
  • Syphilis. Surprisingly common, syphilis causes chancres, which don't cause pain and which tend to be purplish rather than red.

It's always best to let your doctor figure out what kind of bump you have. Sometimes you can skip weeks of misery with very simple treatments.

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