Shingles or herpes zoster is a disease affecting the nervous system. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles later in life, as shingles is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. Shingles is somewhat contagious and individuals with an active infection should take care to minimize the spread of the virus.
A person who has never had chickenpox can contract the virus from someone with shingles. When the shingles virus is active, it causes painful blisters on the skin that contain the live virus. If an uninfected person comes into contact with the fluid in these blisters, they could catch the virus and develop chickenpox. Shingles-to shingles transmission is not possible, but the person with active shingles can spread the virus to someone who never had chickenpox; this will result in the latter individual developing chickenpox.
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A person infected with shingles is not contagious for the full lifecycle of the disease, which can be quite extensive. Infection can only take place when there are blisters on the skin. In the early stages of shingles, an infected person will begin to feel pain, but will not yet have blisters and is therefore not contagious. Likewise, when the disease is nearly gone, the blisters will have scabbed over completely and are not contagious.
During the blistering phase, infected individuals should take steps to prevent transmitting shingles to others. They should avoid sharing towels, cover the blisters, avoiding contact sports and swimming, and possibly even take time off of work while the blisters are seeping.
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Vaccines can help prevent infection in the first place. The shingles vaccine is recommended in healthy adults 60 years and older. Some research shows it is best to contract chickenpox when young to have immunity when older. The shingles vaccine does not guarantee prevention, but it will reduce the chances of infection. A person can receive the shingles vaccine regardless of whether they have had chickenpox.
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Shingles do not only develop on the skin. Ophthalmic shingles occurs when the virus affects the trigeminal nerve that controls the muscles, sensation, and movement of the face. This form of the infection requires immediate treatment. It can present as conjunctivitis or pink eye, which is highly contagious. Other symptoms of this eye infection include throbbing pain in the eye, blurry vision, and redness around and in the eye.
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The shingles virus can spread to anyone and is relatively common. However, some people are more susceptible than others. In particular, older people have a greater risk of contracting chickenpox or shingles. Once a person has had shingles, his or her body retains the virus permanently. Anyone with shingles should stay away from people with weakened immune systems, as well as pregnant women, elderly individuals, and babies (especially premature). These demographics have a higher risk of infection.
Good hygiene such as hand washing and thorough home and bathroom cleaning can help keep shingles from spreading. It is also important to cover the rash and avoid touching or scratching it. Although shingles is less contagious than chickenpox, anyone who begins exhibiting symptoms should stay away from pregnant women, those who are HIV-positive, anyone with a recent organ transplant or taking immunosuppressant drugs, young children, and elderly individuals.
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Generally, shingles develop because of a weakened immune system due to illness, but other factors can also prompt the reactivation of the virus, including stress or emotional turmoil. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle including proper diet and exercise can help prevent shingles. These actions can help reduce stress, as can taking steps to maintain good mental health in general.
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Shingles begins with pain in the area that will ultimately develop a rash. The affected person may experience burning, itching, or stinging pain, as well as flu-like symptoms such as headaches, low-grade fever, and fatigue. A physician can investigate further to determine whether shingles is the cause. The incubation period of shingles — the time it takes from transmission to the first symptoms — is usually about two weeks, so it can be difficult to trace one's infection back to the source.
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Hot spots on the skin, rashes, and weeping blisters can cause significant pain for a person with shingles. Painkillers and antiviral medication can help ease the pain and severity of the virus. Pain can persist long after the rash and blisters disappear.
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