How Do I Know If I Have Shingles?

Girl with shingles
Do I have Shingles?. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Question: How Do I Know If I Have Shingles?

As you get older, you're at greater risk of developing shingles, the painful disease that occurs when the chicken pox virus from an earlier infection reawakens in your body. But how do you know if it's shingles based on the symptoms you have and not some other flu-like illness?

Answer:

Shingles can initially cause fever, chills, and headache — but it also has some trademark symptoms that should help you and your health-care provider determine if what you're experiencing is this potentially dangerous disease, rather than influenza or something else.

They include:

  • Rash confined to one side of the body: Shingles usually begins with a rash comprised of fluid-filled blisters on a finite strip of skin, usually on the face, neck or chest on just one side of the body. The affected area of skin is called a dermatome, which is the region supplied by the sensory fibers of a specific spinal nerve. The shingles rash usually scabs over within 7-10 days and disappears within 2-4 weeks.

    Look here for photos of a typical shingles rash

  • Severe pain: Pain intensity is another clue that the rash you're experiencing is actually shingles. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of patients with shingles describe the pain as "excruciating."

Why you need to act quickly: Getting to your doctor or health-care provider promptly is of utmost importance if you suspect you may have shingles, as antiviral medications are most effective against the disease if administered within 72 hours (3 days) of its onset.

These drugs not only reduce the severity of symptoms but can shorten the length of the illness as well. What's more, antivirals have been shown to diminish the incidence of other potentially severe complications, such as those causing a loss of vision, and infections of the central nervous system.

Please note: This information is offered for education purposes only, and is not intended for self-diagnosis, or to replace the advice of a health-care professional.

If you suspect you may have shingles, please consult your physician as soon as possible for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Sources:

CDC Seeks to Protect Older Adults With Shingles Vaccine Message. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Information Sheet. Accessed April 15, 2013.
http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/shingles/downloads/shingles-vac-msg-2008.pdf

Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Signs and Symptoms. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Information Sheet. Accessed April 15, 2013.
http://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/symptoms.html

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