Caused by the same virus that results in chickenpox, shingles and its symptoms can flare up later in life.

A painful infection of the nerves and skin, shingles and its effects on your outer appearance typically an outbreak of rash and blisters can resemble those of chickenpox. In fact, a previous bout with chickenpox is necessary for shingles to eventually flare up, as both infections are caused by the varicella zoster virus that remains dormant in the body.

While the impact on your skin from shingles and chickenpox has some distinct similarities, the potential consequences to your health from shingles can be severe. Along with pain, burning or itching caused by the virus following along nerve paths to the skin, the accompanying rash and blisters can bring about scarring. In addition, permanent damage to your vision can occur from an outbreak of shingles on the face, while pain and tingling from a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) can linger for months or even years after the rash has healed.

Who gets shingles

The varicella zoster virus resides within a persons nerve roots near the spinal cord after they have contracted chickenpox, then wakes up with the onset of shingles. While it’s not known what awakens the virus, common risk factors among people that may increase their risk for later contracting shingles include:

  • Being age 60 or older (although shingles has become more common in younger patients)
  • Suffering from injury or illness
  • Dealing with a compromised immune system brought about by illness and/or treatments(e.g. cancer, HIV)

While shingles is not commonly transmitted from one person to another, a person with uncovered, open blisters can transmit the virus by contacting another person who has never had chickenpox or received the varicella vaccine; that person will then get chickenpox, not shingles.

Signs of infection

Shingles starts off with tingling, burning, sensitive areas of skin that usually develop into a rash, followed by groups of painful, fluid-filled blisters that eventually dry out and crust over. Fever, headaches and fatigue are other common symptoms. An outbreak usually takes two to three weeks to go away, although potential scarring, PHN and damage to the eyes can result from severe attacks if treatment isnt initiated early enough following a physicians diagnosis.

Prevention and treatment

While shingles cannot be cured, treatments can ease symptoms, speed up your recovery and head off more serious problems such as PHN. They include over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers, wet compresses, calamine lotion and antiviral medications that must be taken within 48-72 hours after symptoms first appear. Prevention is possible by getting the shingles vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for everyone 60 and older, regardless of whether they’ve previously had chickenpox or shingles. If you’re younger than the recommended age group and at risk of contracting the virus, visit with your doctor to discuss immunization.

Dr. Mark Kaufmann, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon. After graduating Alpha Omega Alpha from NYUs School of Medicine, Dr. Kaufmann has been practicing all aspects of dermatology for the past 20 years. He has been featured on Good Morning America, quoted in The New York Times and has appeared in Good Housekeeping and Shape. Dr. Kauffman currently serves as an Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.