Chances are you had chicken pox as a kid. In fact, your parents may have even purposefully exposed you to the virus to get the whole experience over with. The idea is that once you get the chickenpox, you'll never get it again. That's true for chickenpox, but not the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox. This herpes virus stays dormant in your nervous system and may reactivate later in life as shingles. It is important to recognize the early signs of shingles and seek treatment as soon as possible. This can shorten the length of your infection and lower your risk of complications.
Who gets shingles?
First of all, only people who have had chickenpox at some point in their lives can get shingles. You can't get shingles from another person, but a person with shingles can give another person chickenpox. People who are over 50 are more likely to develop shingles, as are people with weakened immune systems. Diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer can weaken your immune system, as can drugs like steroids and chemotherapy. Like chickenpox, most people get shingles only once. But it is possible to get shingles again if you have had it once.
The first symptoms of shingles
Shingles is usually associated with a rash, but in the days or weeks before the rash appears, your skin may feel:
Most of the time you will feel it on your back or chest, but it is possible to feel it on your head, abdomen, neck, face or limbs. Other early symptoms:
- Stomachache or abdominal pain
- Swollen, tender lymph nodes
Visible symptoms of shingles
After the initial discomfort, you will begin to notice small, painful bumps forming on your skin. This rash will form on only one side of your body, often in a U shape from your back around to your chest. This is an important identifying characteristic. Pain is also a significant characteristic of shingles. The pain associated with shingles is quite intense for some people, with even the slightest bump causing extreme pain. After a few days, these bumps will fill with fluid and look like chickenpox. However, these blisters are usually less itchy and more painful than chickenpox. These blisters will eventually fill with pus, break open and ooze, and ultimately crust over. The rash will heal in a few weeks and may leave scars. Sometimes people feel the pain of shingles without getting the rash, which can make diagnosis more difficult.
If you have shingles, it is possible for you to give someone else chickenpox. This usually happens when someone has direct contact with the open sores of your rash. If you are suffering from shingles, it is best to stay away from:
- Those who haven't had chickenpox yet
- People with weak immune systems, like people with cancer or HIV/AIDS
- Women who are pregnant (chicken pox is dangerous for developing babies)