"I feel like something bit me on the lower back." "I've got this burning, tingling rash." "There are little blisters on my arm."
What do these people have in common? All have herpes zoster, aka, shingles. It's a more common condition than you may think: 1 in 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. It can affect any sex or age group (including children), although it is more common after age 60.
Despite its name, herpes zoster is not caused by the herpes virus. It's caused by the varicella virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once an individual has been infected with the chickenpox virus, it remains inactive (dormant) in our nerves forever. For reasons not entirely understood, the virus will activate, travel along the nerve, and erupt in the skin that connected to that specific nerve. This is why shingles only shows up in a portion of the skin, and not everywhere, like chickenpox does.
Although anyone can develop shingles, those with a weakened immune system due to cancer, pregnancy, illness, and certain immunosuppressive medications are at higher risk. Shingles usually starts as a tingling or burning sensation in the skin. A few days later, a red rash with grouped clear, small blisters will appear. The rash may feel painful or itchy.
Antiviral treatment is available from your physician, which helps to reduce the length of time and severity of the shingles. They should be started early in the course to be most effective. A dreaded complication of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia, which is persistent nerve pain in the area of shingles. The antiviral treatment may help prevent this condition. Shingles that involves the face, eyes, or ears requires emergent treatment to avoid complications.
A vaccine, called Zostavax, is available for patients age 60 and older. It may prevent the development of shingles.