Shingles is a localized infection due to the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.
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It most commonly occurs in older people but it can affect children too. After an attack of chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus move away to nerve cells in the body, where it may lie dormant for decades. But under certain conditions, usually related to aging or disease, the virus can reactivate and begin to reproduce. Once activated, the virus moves along the path of a nerve to the skin’s surface, where it causes shingles.

People with shingles may feel numbness, tingling, itching, or a stabbing pain before the rash appears. Pain may come first, but when the virus finally reaches the skin the rash come into view as a band or patch of raised dots on the side of the trunk or face.

The virus infects the skin cells and creates a painful, red rash that looks like chickenpox. It then develops into small, fluid-filled blisters which break open, and form crusty scabs. In about four or five weeks, the disease runs its course, the scabs drop off, the skin heals, and the pain fades. When the rash is at its peak, symptoms can range from minor itching to extreme and intense pain. Most healthy individuals make pleasant recovery. Doctors can distinguish shingles from chickenpox by the way the spots are distributed.

Elderly people whose immune system is weakened are more prone to shingles. The reasons for having a weak immune system, including HIV infection, periods of increased stress, excess alcohol intake, long term courses of steroids, cancer treatments or medicines used after organ transplants.

Other sources of information for these topics.

Medinfo: Shingles (Herpes Zoster)
Easy to understand information for patients on shingles (Herpes Zoster), a painful, blistering rash caused by the chickenpox (varicella) virus which affects ...

Shingles: An Unwelcome Encore
Caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, shingles most commonly occurs in older people. Treatment was once limited to wet compresses and aspirin.

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