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March 20, 2018  |  Login
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Shingles is a painful condition caused by herpes zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you've had chickenpox (and most adults have had the disease at some point in their lives), the virus doesn't leave your body. Instead, it takes up residence in the nerves near the spine, where it lies dormant, usually for the rest of your life. Sometimes, however, herpes zoster is triggered back into activity. This time around, the symptoms are different and more severe. At the beginning of the illness, the area along one branch of nerves, usually one side of your trunk or face, is more sensitive than usual; you may also develop a fever or chills. The sensitive area then becomes acutely painful, and a rash of small blisters develops. After two or three weeks, these clear, water-filled blisters will turn yellow and form scabs. Eventually, they fall off, and sometimes they leave scars.

The nerve pain caused by shingles can be agonizing. You may not be able to bear even the lightest touch, and simple activities like shaving and showering may be out of the question. Even the weight of clothes or bed sheets may be too much. But this pain usually disappears when the blisters drop off. In a few cases, though, the blisters fade but the pain remains for months or even years. This condition, which usually strikes people over fifty, is known as postherpetic neuralgia. No single trigger will always cause herpes zoster to reactivate in the body, but the virus seems to thrive when the immune system is weakened. People undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer or other illnesses are at a greater risk for shingles, as are those who are under extreme emotional stress. Immune-compromising diseases like AIDS or lupus can also leave a body vulnerable to shingles.

Most people will be healthy and pain-free once the disease has run its course. Nevertheless, your doctor should monitor you frequently to make sure the virus doesn't spread to your eyes or your internal organs, where it can have a devastating effect. Sometimes the virus can lead to pneumonia or other secondary infections, which can be deadly to older people or those who suffer from severely compromised immune systems. Between visits to your doctor, you'll find that a wide range of complementary therapies can bolster your immune system and reduce your need for aggressive conventional pain medication.

Next: What are the Symptoms of Shingles

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