Shingles pain can be severe and is often experienced early on with shingles. So, it’s important to understand the symptoms, treatment, long-term effects, and ways to prevent this very painful condition.
The same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus, or herpes zoster), is what causes shingles. It is a common viral infection of the nerve roots in the body that affects about a third of the U.S. population. Adults over age 50 and people with a weakened immune system have the highest risk of getting shingles. However, children can also get shingles.
Once a person has chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in their body. During adulthood, the virus may reactivate, and cause an outbreak of shingles. Though common, researchers do not know what causes the shingles virus to reactivate.
Once it is reactivated, the virus travels along a sensory nerve and develops into a painful, localized skin rash or small blisters. The rash occurs in the area of the affected nerve, usually with blisters, or fluid-filled sacs on top of reddish skin. The rash is what we call shingles.
Most healthy people who develop shingles experience the symptoms for just a few weeks. However, in some cases, the symptoms may linger for a few months and can be severe.
Some medical professionals believe the reactivation of the shingles virus may be due to a lower immunity to infections as we age. Some other factors that can increase the risk of developing shingles include:
- Certain diseases. Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer.
- Cancer treatments. Radiation or chemotherapy that lower the body’s resistance to disease.
- Certain medications. Drugs designed to prevent rejection of transplanted organs and the prolonged use of steroids, like prednisone.
- Stress and fatigue. Chronic, daily stress and highly stressful life events can be a risk factor, especially when other factors are present that negatively affect the immune system.
Pain is usually the first sign of shingles. The pain can begin as a tingling about two to four days before the rash occurs. For some, the pain can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, shingles can be mistaken for problems with the heart, lungs, or kidneys.
As time progresses, tingling, itching, joint pain, swollen glands, and a burning pain often develops. The rash typically appears one to five days after the symptoms begin. The rash first appears as small, red spots that form blisters filled with fluid, and then scab over. If the blisters burst from scratching, the skin may scar after the rash subsides.
The shingles skin rash usually heals within two to four weeks. Some people may develop ongoing nerve pain that can last for months or years, a condition called postherpetic neuralgia.
The rash caused by shingles is more painful than itchy, with the pain and rash being the most apparent signs of shingles. The skin rash tends to be isolated to one side of the body, or in a particular location on the body. Shingles most commonly develops in the areas of the chest, stomach, spine, face, and mouth, but can appear other places on the body, even in multiple locations.
Besides the skin, many other organs can be affected by shingles, leading to severe complications. For example, shingles can affect the eyes, brain, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, joints, intestinal tract, blood vessels, and more. Therefore, it’s very important to immediately seek a doctor’s care when symptoms of shingles first occur.
How is Shingles Treated?
There is no cure for shingles, but treatment can help shorten the length of the illness and prevent complications.
Treatment usually begins with antiviral medication. If treatment begins within the first three days of seeing the shingles rash, there is less chance of complications, such as postherpetic neuralgia.
Taking a cold bath or using cool, wet compresses on the blisters often helps relieve the itching and pain. It can also help to reduce stress.
Long Term Effects of Shingles
Not everyone will suffer complications from shingles; however, in some cases, shingles can lead to long-term pain or affect internal organs. Besides postherpetic neuralgia, other complications that can develop include:
- Vision loss. Shingles in or around an eye (ophthalmic shingles) can cause painful eye infections that can cause vision problems.
- Neurological problems. Depending on which nerves are affected, shingles can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), facial paralysis, and hearing or balance problems.
- Skin infections. If shingles blisters aren’t properly treated, bacterial skin infections can develop.
- Other organs. Several other organs can be affected by shingles, including the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, joints, intestinal tract, blood vessels, and more.
- Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. A shingles infection inside or near the ear that can cause weakness of the muscles on the affected side of the face, as well as hearing and balance problems.
- Pneumonia. Although infrequent, shingles can cause inflammation of the tissue of the lungs, resulting in viral pneumonia.
Can You Avoid Shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles later in life. Most people will get shingles only once, but it is possible to be affected with it multiple times.
There is a shingles vaccine (Zostavax) that may help prevent shingles or make it less painful. It is recommended for adults ages 60 and older, whether they’ve had shingles previously.
For children and adults who never had chickenpox, there is a vaccine (varicella vaccine) that can help avoid getting the virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles.
For those who have never had chickenpox (and have not received the chickenpox vaccine), it is best to avoid contact with people who do have shingles or chickenpox. Fluid from shingles blisters is contagious and can cause chickenpox, but not shingles.
Novus Spine & Pain Center
The Novus Spine & Pain Center is in Lakeland, Florida, and specializes in treating shingles pain. By using a comprehensive approach and cutting-edge therapies, we work together with patients to restore function and regain an active lifestyle, while minimizing the need for opiates.
Our Mission Statement: To provide the best quality of life to people suffering from pain, by providing state of the art treatments, knowledge and skill, compassion, and respect for all.