What Exactly Is Shingles Disease?

At its dark ugly heart, the shingles disease is a viral infection that outwardly displays itself as a painful and unsightly rash. Although shingles can appear anywhere on the body, the blisters most commonly form a band wrapping from the middle of the back around one side to the chest's center. Doctors say that the varicella-zoster virus sometimes lies dormant in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain, later reactivating as the extremely painful shingles. Individuals can cut their risk of getting shingles with a vaccine. Similarly, early treatment can reduce the risk of complications once a person has contracted the disease.

Shingles begin with pain, burning, tingling and numbness in a small section on one side of the body. Several days later, a red rash begins stretching across the skin. Soon fluid-filled blisters break open and crust over, causing intense itching. For many people, the skin rash is accompanied by fever, chills, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Pain is the worst symptom of shingles however, which is sometimes so bad that people presume they're having heart, lung or kidney problems. Occasionally, shingles will appear encircling the eye, which can lead to infection or permanent damage. Patients are advised to call a doctor if the rash becomes widespread and painful.

Most adults in the United States contracted the chickenpox virus when they were children, before the advent of the chickenpox vaccine. As a result, they may be carrying some form of the virus in their system, which can later re-emerge as shingles disease. Added risk factors include being over 50 years of age and having a weakened immune system. It's widely believed that half the people who live to age 85 will experience shingles at some point in their lives. Weakened immune systems can be caused by HIV/AIDS, cancer or cancer treatments (radiation or chemotherapy), steroid use (prednisone) or transplanted organ drugs (designed to prevent rejection).  

Within 72 hours of shingles disease, doctors like to prescribe oral antiviral medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir). They often also prescribe medication for pain, like narcotics (Oxycodone), tricyclic antidepressants (Amitriptyline), anticonvulsants (Neurontin) or numbing agents (Lidocaine). Patients are also advised to get plenty of rest, avoid strenuous activities and practice relaxation techniques like meditating, practicing tai chi, listening to music, reading books, watching movies or working on hobbies, which will take the mind off the pain. Sometimes it helps to take a cool bath or use cool, wet compresses to reduce blister itching. Over-the-counter medications like Advil, Motrine, Aleve, Benadryl or calamine lotion may also help.

Related topics about shingles disease
Shingles Virus
"Shingles is actually the reactivation of the chickenpox virus," Dr. Jennifer Ashton explains on the CBS Early Show. "So if you've had the chickenpox, you can get shingles and in fact, about a million Americans get it every year.

Shingles Vaccine
The shingles virus is an unsightly belt-like rash accompanied by pain, which is a form of chickenpox that usually comes later in life. The visible symptoms last 2-4 weeks, as do other symptoms like fatigue, headaches, fever, chills, body aches and discomfort. Of those who develop shingles, 1 in 5 suffer a serious complication known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which means the pain lingers long after the blistering sores have gone.