Shingles is a form of the chickenpox virus that reactivates in adults. When it does, it causes an excruciating skin rash to develop along with blisters that can ooze or crust over. It’s essential to know the telltale signs you have shingles so you can get treatment as soon as possible!
The first symptoms include fever, headaches, chills, and sensitivity to light, which are systemic symptoms that occur even before rashes start to appear. This is known as the prodromal stage. A telltale sign that this may not just be the typical flu is when there is an area with burning or tingling pain that may be accompanied by itchiness; occasionally, it even includes numbness on one side of the body. It is reported that rashes typically start to develop anywhere from one to five days after one begins to feel the tingling or burning sensation on the skin. These rashes cluster along nerve pathways and may be accompanied by a sharp pain in the area where the rashes develop.
After a few days, these red rashes turn into fluid-filled blisters that look similar to chickenpox. There may also be new blisters popping out over the next several days. Although it typically appears on the torso and face, these blisters can occur elsewhere. In rare cases, it can appear on the lower half of your body or spread over your whole body (also known as disseminated zoster). The stage when blisters appear is when one is most infectious, and direct contact with the active blisters should be avoided. Items contaminated with fluid from the blisters should be thoroughly washed or disinfected as the virus can be transferred to others in this way. Although it may be tempting to scratch the blisters due to the itchiness, it is recommended that scratching of the blisters is kept to a minimum, as this may cause scarring of the skin.
The “shingles belt”
Shingles often appears around the rib cage or waist and may appear in a circular line around the waist that looks like a “belt” or half belt. You might also hear this formation referred to as a “shingles band” or a “shingles girdle” (Healthline Editorial Team, 2018).
This is a unique symptom that is easily recognizable as shingles. The belt can cover a wide area on one side of your midsection. Its location can make tight clothing particularly uncomfortable due to the pain and itchiness.
Scabbing and crusting
About a week to 10 days later, the open blisters start to erupt, ooze fluid, and slowly dry up and crust over. They may turn slightly yellow and begin to flatten. This is when scabs start to form. This stage typically lasts for another one to two weeks. There is now less risk of spreading the virus. However, one should continue to be vigilant in practicing infection control, and good practices include washing hands after touching the blistered area. During this stage, one also typically experiences a reduction in pain, although there are some cases where the pain continues for months or years.
Groups at risk
While the onset of shingles is often mistaken for more common skin conditions like skin allergy, cellulitis, eczema, or insect bites, it is crucial to seek early treatment for shingles to diminish the pain, itching, and other symptoms. Generally speaking, you should see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect that you have shingles. This is especially important if you:
- Are over 60 years old
- Are known to be immunocompromised (with a weakened immune system, such as in the case of HIV) or take immunosuppressive medication (e.g., chemotherapy drugs or steroids)
- You live with someone who has a weakened immune system.
- Have a rash is on your face or near your eye, which could lead to severe eye damage or even cause you to lose sight in that eye.
Treatment of shingles
The doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, which is most effective when started within 72 hours of the onset of the rash. They may also prescribe painkillers and antihistamines to provide relief for the accompanying symptoms of shingles. If not treated promptly and properly, this condition can lead to debilitating effects such as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), where one continues to suffer from mild or extreme pain even after the rash is gone, and this can last for several months or longer. Other complications resulting from shingles include long-term nerve pain, full or partial blindness (if shingles spread to the eyes), pneumonia, hearing loss, brain inflammation, and even death.
In conclusion, the telltale signs of shingles are as follows:
- Fever, headaches, chills, and sensitivity to light in the initial stages
- Tingling and burning sensation of the skin, with rashes starting to develop
- Fluid-filled blisters and accompanying pain, typically on one side of the body
- Rashes or blisters forming a “shingles belt” or shingles band that typically forms around the waist or rib cage
Shingles can be a debilitating condition that does not respond to typical treatment. If you experience any of these symptoms in this early stage, it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately. The doctor will typically prescribe antiviral medicines, as well as painkillers and antihistamines. The only way to prevent contracting this condition is by getting vaccinated against it, which can provide strong protection against shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia in your older years.
Healthline Editorial Team. (2018, December 3). Shingles: Symptoms with pictures. Healthline. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/shingles-pictures.