Understanding Shingles: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

It’s estimated that one out of every three people will get shingles in their lifetime. Learn the signs and symptoms associated with this disease and what you should expect when you seek medical treatment.

Shingles, also known as zoster or herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Shingles affects 1 million people every year, with half the cases affecting men and women 60 years old and older. The signs and symptoms associated with a shingles outbreak can be both confusing and scary. This article will examine what to look for and what should be done if you think you might have shingles.

Signs and symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms associated with shingles include the following:

  • Pain, burning, numbness and tingling
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • A red rash that begins a few days after the pain and affects one side of the body
  • Fluid filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Itching

Some people also experience fever, headaches, chills, upset stomach, sensitivity to light and fatigue. Pain is a primary symptom associated with shingles, and for some, it can be intense as well as debilitating.

What to do if you suspect you have shingles

If you think you have shingles, Michigan State University Extension recommends contacting your healthcare provider immediately. Be prepared to provide your doctor with a description of your symptoms (including when they started), current and past medical problems and whether or not you have ever had chickenpox.

Diagnosis is usually based on the appearance and location of the rash as well as the level of pain you are experiencing. In some cases, your doctor may take a tissue scraping or culture of blisters as a means for further testing. Even though there is no cure, shingles can be treated with prescription drugs that will help speed up the healing process and reduce your risk for complications.

Are you considered contagious?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the shingles virus can be spread from a person with active shingles to another person who has never had chickenpox, however, this can only occur through direct contact when the rash is in the blister-phase. It is important to take the following precautions:

  • Cover the rash.
  • Avoid touching and/or scratching the rash.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Avoid physical contact with pregnant women, newborns and people with weakened immune systems, including those receiving immunosuppressive medications or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplants recipients and people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). 

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