Shingles isn’t life-threatening, but it is extremely uncomfortable, causing an itchy and painful rash, among other symptoms. As the virus (which has been dormant in the nerves near the spinal cord) becomes active again, an area of your skin may become tingly or numb, along with a burning or otherwise painful sensation. Within a few days a rash develops, which then turns into blisters that swell and crust over. Unlike chicken pox, these skin symptoms are usually confined to a small area on one side of the body; if it occurs all over, call your doctor right away. You may also experience headache, photosensitivity, and flu-like symptoms such as fatigue and aches.
The rash usually appears on the body, often the torso. Get immediate medical help if it develops on your face, however: when near the eyes, the infection can spread and damage them permanently. The virus can’t be spread through contact to people who have had the virus (or been vaccinated), but for people who have never had chicken pox or the vaccination, there’s a chance it can be transmitted.
The virus often reawakens in people whose immune system has been compromised, by stress, certain medications, chronic illnesses (including cancer), and in older people. In people over 60, the risk of complication such as permanent nerve damage is higher, so prompt treatment is essential.
Shingles is treated with both antiviral and pain medications, which may include numbing topical creams. It’s also important to keep the rash clean and avoid scratching or excessive rubbing of the area; cold compresses or a cool bath can help with the pain and itching. Getting vaccinated is a good idea, especially for people over 60, whose risk of complication is higher.