Shingles is a rash infection, which is the more severe and painful cousin of chickenpox. Once a person has shingles, the symptoms and treatments are the same for men and women. However, women who are pregnant or have a baby younger than 12 months need to take extra precautions to avoid becoming infected.
What It Is
Shingles develops from the same virus that causes chicken pox. If you had chicken pox as a child, the virus stays in your body, but it’s inactive and stays parked in your nerve cells. Your immune system keeps the virus from escaping the cells. But if your immune system becomes weakened from the aging process or from a medical condition, such as cancer or HIV, the virus can escape from your cells, which causes shingles. Your risk for getting shingles goes up after you turn 50.
Shingles is an ugly, painful, itchy and blistering rash. The pain can begin before you break out in the rash. Other symptoms you might get with shingles are a fever, chills, diarrhea, nausea and difficulty urinating. The rash starts out as reddish bumps that later turn into blisters. After about a week, the blisters crust over and fall off. Some people experience a change in their skin color after the blisters fall off, and in the more severe cases, the color change can be permanent. Sometimes, pain lasts one or two months after the shingles are gone.
Your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medicine that can reduce the severity of your symptoms. You may get pain medication, too. At home, you can take over-the-counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and apply anti-itch lotion to the blisters. You can also soak cool compresses in a white vinegar/water solution and apply that to the blisters.
The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention recommends that all people over 60 get a shingles vaccine. If you are pregnant, have an infant or a young child, you can be around someone who got the vaccine. However, some people get a side effect of redness, soreness, itching and swelling at the vaccine site. That person should cover this rash until it goes away. The CDC reports that there has never been a documented case of a person transmitting the chicken pox after receiving the vaccine, but it doesn’t hurt to be safe, so you might want to avoid a person with a reaction until the reaction goes away.
When a person has the shingles, it’s too late for the vaccine until the shingles go away. In the meantime, you should stay away from a person who has shingles if you are pregnant; have an infant or a small child. Shingles in itself is not contagious, but chickenpox is. If someone who has never had the chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine is around a person with shingles, that person can get the chickenpox.