What are Shingles?

You know you can get shingles if you’ve had chicken pox and you know how to treat it, but do you know what it is and how it develops? Read on to find out.

What are Shingles?

Shingles is an encore presentation of the chicken pox attack you had as a child. This very painful nerve condition is caused by the same varicella zoster virus that causes chicken pox.

If you ever had chicken pox, the varicella zoster virus is probably hibernating in your nerve cells. Although the virus remains dormant in most people, shingles can occur when the virus is reactivated in the nerve pathways. Although shingles is most common in people over 50, it can erupt in younger people, too.

Scientists don’t know exactly what “wakes up” the hibernating shingles virus, but they believe advancing age, a weakened immune system, some medications (such as cortisone-type drugs or immune-suppressing medications) emotional stress, or recovery from surgery can trigger it. Shingles also affects some people who have cancer or AIDS. Skin injuries and sunburn may also trigger it.

In some people who have had shingles, the rash clears up but numbness, tingling or pain continues along the affected nerve pathways. This is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is most common in people over age 50 who have a shingles break out. The painful condition can last for months or even years.

Your doctor can usually tell from the pattern of the blisters if you have shingles. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may order lab tests to examine a sample of fluid from your blisters. Your doctor may also recommend you see a dermatologist to help prevent the blisters from scarring your skin.

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