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Everything You Need to Know About Shingles

You might be at a greater risk of catching shingles than you think. Here’s what you need to know.

Shingles are often associated with aging; so you might not be aware that many young people, especially those with a weakened immune system, are still at risk of contracting it. If you think you might be at risk, here’s everything you need to know about the condition, including warning signs, symptoms, and treatment options.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. This virus remains inactive within the body’s nerve cells after the initial infection, only causing shingles to appear if it’s reactivated. As a result, only people who have had chickenpox before can develop shingles. While the virus is easily spread, it’s transmitted only through direct contact with infected skin; it cannot be carried through the air or bodily fluids.

Since the elderly are less likely to have been vaccinated against chickenpox, they are more likely to have had the varicella-zoster virus at some point in their lives, and so are at greater risk of developing shingles. Anyone who has ever had chickenpox can contract it, however.

What are the warning signs and symptoms?

The most common signs of shingles are a fever and chills, but the primary symptom is a painful, blistering rash that can last for up to a month, though it can sometimes disappear as quickly as within a week. Unlike chickenpox, which can cover the entire body, shingles usually affects a single patch of skin, most often around the torso. The rash often oozes when the virus is most contagious, but it later scabs over as the virus runs its course.

What are the treatment options?

Shingles is treated with antivirals such as Zovirax, though prescription options will vary from patient to patient. If you’re experiencing particularly severe pain, your doctor can prescribe you nerve pain medications such as Neurontin, Gralise, or Horizant. Some patients might develop a potentially debilitating condition called postherpetic neuralgia; since chronic pain is its primary symptom, tell your doctor right away if you’re still experiencing pain after the rash subsides.

You should also cover your rashes until they’ve formed crusts or scabs. Avoid touching or scratching them, and wash your hands often. Avoid contact with pregnant women, premature and newborn babies, and anyone else with a weakened immune system, including chemotherapy patients, recipients of organ transplants, or persons with HIV.

How can I avoid contracting shingles?

If you haven’t had chickenpox, talk to your doctor about getting the chickenpox vaccine. It will provide immunity against the varicella-zoster virus, protecting you from both chickenpox and shingles.

If you’ve already had chickenpox, avoid contact with people who have shingles, especially those with open blisters. Wash your hands often and practice other good hygiene habits.

If you have further questions about your susceptibility to shingles or other viruses affecting the skin, contact a dermatologist today.

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