If you’ve ever had chickenpox — like 99% of people born before 1980 — the virus (varicella zoster) that caused it still lives in your body. It lies dormant for many years, suppressed by your immune system until something awakens it, such as a weakened immune system, stress, allergies, or toxins. When this occurs, you don’t get chickenpox again, you get its evil cousin shingles.
The first and most prominent symptom of shingles — pain — is our specialty here at Princeton Pain & Spine Institute in Lawrenceville and Edgewater, New Jersey. Dr. Dinash Yanamadula uses a multidisciplinary approach to keep you comfortable while shingles runs its course, and if you come to see him at the first signs of the condition, he can help you avoid some serious complications.
Once the varicella zoster virus reactivates and you get shingles, you can expect it to last about 3-5 weeks. Shingles unfolds in stages with new symptoms appearing as it progresses. Here are the five most common signs of shingles.
The first sign of shingles is typically pain on one side of your torso, face, or neck. As a precursor to pain, some cases of shingles start out as related sensations, such as tingling, burning, numbness, or itching.
These symptoms generally cluster in one area of your skin, called a dermatome, that runs along a nerve path. Each of the 31 nerves in your spine that branch off to your body parts supplies information to a specific dermatome. The shingles virus usually affects one or two of these spinal nerves, so your shingles symptoms will appear in the correlating dermatome.
If the shingles virus reactivates in your C5 spinal nerve, for example, you’ll experience pain and other symptoms in your upper shoulder and right collarbone.
Within the first five days, you’ll see a rash appear along the dermatome. Depending on your skin tone, the rash may appear bright red, brown, purple, or dark pink.
As the rash progresses, fluid-filled blisters appear. Even if you didn’t experience itchiness and burning sensations from the start, you will now. The shingles rash is itchy and painful, but don’t scratch them; the blisters break easily and can leave scars if you scratch or pick at them.
Shingles is a virus, and like all viruses, it triggers your body’s defense mechanisms. Because most viruses can’t survive at high temperatures, a fever — even one or two degrees above normal — can kill whatever microbe is making you sick.
Your brain raises the new “normal” temperature (fever). But until your body catches up with the change, you’re technically “under” the target temperature and therefore feel cold (chills). In fact, as your body works to generate more heat, your chills may turn into shakes. This is all standard operating procedure in the war against viruses.
If you’ve ever had the flu, another viral infection, you know that fever and headache often go hand in hand. Viral infections often trigger your white blood cells to produce a chemical called interferon to mount a fight against infection.
In fact, interferon drugs are effective treatments for certain types of viral infections. Whether you use an interferon medication or your body produces them during a bout with shingles, studies show it can lead to headaches.
As shingles runs its course, you may notice significant weakness and fatigue. Again, this is a common sign of many viral infections, including shingles. Fatigue is another natural defense mechanism, only this one’s purpose is to suppress physical activity so your body can focus its resources on fighting the virus.
Viral infections can also affect your nerves and cause inflammation that weakens your muscles and results in an overall feeling of fatigue that can linger for days or weeks after the shingles are gone.
If you had chickenpox as a kid, it’s a good idea to get the shingles vaccine, especially if you’re over age 50 or have a weakened immune system. The vaccine is over 90% effective and not only guards against the virus, but its complications, as well. These complications include:
If you get shingles, come see Dr. Yanamadula as soon as possible. Within the first 72 hours,
he can treat you with antiviral medication that can reduce your pain, speed up your recovery, and possibly prevent the development of PHN.
Since PHN isn’t curable, you’ll need long-term strategies to help you deal with the chronic pain. If this occurs, Dr. Yanamadula offers cutting-edge treatments, such as nerve blocks, prescription medications, hot and cold therapy, and TENS therapy.
At the first sign of shingles, call us at Princeton Pain & Spine Institute to schedule an appointment or book online at your convenience.