"It's the worst pain I've ever had in my entire life."
That's what many people say about the severe and sudden pain caused by shingles.
While you may have heard people describe their shingles pain, you might not know that this pain can continue after the rash has gone. The pain from shingles can last weeks, months or even the rest of their lives.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus responsible for chickenpox. Once you've had chickenpox, the virus then "sleeps" on the nerves in your body. In some people, the virus will "wake up" when stress, illness or increasing age causes a weakened immune system. Some medications also weaken the immune system, allowing the virus to "wake up."
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Shingles develops in several stages. Initially, you might have a headache or feel like you are getting the flu, but usually you won't have fever. Later you may feel an area of your body begin to itch, tingle, burn or hurt. A few days later, blisters begin to develop along one side of your body. The blisters form clusters, fill with fluid, burst, then crust over. It might take two to four weeks for the blisters to heal, and some people experience scarring. Long-term pain, dizziness, weakness, vision problems and changes in the way you think can be ongoing consequences of shingles.
Only people who have had chickenpox can get shingles. You cannot catch shingles through casual contact or from someone who is coughing or sneezing. However, people who have never had chickenpox can get chickenpox if they have direct contact with a blistering shingles rash. Later in life they could then get shingles.
Shingles can be treated with medications to weaken the virus and treat the pain. Starting antiviral medications quickly can help the rash heal faster and decrease the pain.
You should always see your health-care provider right away if you develop any of these symptoms.
Like any other illness, the best treatment is prevention. There is a shingles vaccine for people 50 and older. The vaccine decreases your chances of getting shingles and can lessen the severity of the rash and pain. It also helps prevent the long-term pain that can occur after shingles. If you are 50 or older, ask your health-care provider about the shingles vaccine.