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Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox. After chickenpox, which normally occurs in childhood, the chickenpox virus can remain in the body for the life of the individual. It is usually dormant and causes no signs or symptoms. However, due to circumstances not fully understood, the virus may reactivate and produce localized skin condition. In many instances, shingles begins with a localized rash, which progresses rapidly to blister-like lesions. These lesions may appear in crops in irregular fashions along a nerve pathway on one side of the body.

The lesions continue to form for a period of 3 to 5 days, with a total duration of the disease being ten to fifteen days. Generally the lesions are more deeply seated and more closely grouped than chickenpox. Severe pain and/or itching often occur.

Shingles has been reported to be associated with aging, a suppression or malfunction of the immune system, trauma, sun exposure or chickenpox in children exposed either before birth or before eighteen months of age. For those with malfunctioning immune systems, the disease can be severe and spread throughout the body, causing problems in many organs of the body.

Shingles, although sometimes painful or very itchy, usually resolves without complications. Sometimes more serious effects occur, especially if the lesions involves the eye or nerves in the head. Persons with shingles should seek professional medical care if the lesions occur on the head. A high fever, difficulty in eating or drinking, problems with hearing or balance, or persistence of symptoms are reasons to visit a doctor.

It is estimated that approximately 300,000 cases of shingles occur annually, with approximately 5% of the cases being repeated episodes. There is no treatment that prevents shingles. Once shingles develop, treatment of shingles provides varying degrees of benefit. The best source of treatment information is a local physician who is familiar with the treatment of shingles. Treatments include topical agents, antiviral drugs, and steroids.

Transmission of the shingles virus results in a chickenpox infection in a susceptible person who has never had chickenpox. The main risk of transmission is through contact with drainage of the lesions (the fluid in the blisters of shingles contains infectious virus) or from articles containing fresh drainage from the lesions. Thus, a local covering of the lesions can prevent transmission of the virus to others. Isolation of a person with localized shingles is not recommended.