Shingles, or herpes zoster, is an acute viral infection of the nerves caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, which is the virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles can only occur in those who have previously had chickenpox, and shingles itself is not contagious. After a case of chickenpox, the virus responsible for the infection becomes dormant in the nerve roots of the body. In some people, the virus may never reawaken, while in others, the virus wakes up due to stress, a weakened immune system, or another cause. When the virus becomes reactivated, an outbreak of shingles occurs.
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During an episode of shingles, painful, fluid-filled blisters form on one side of the body, along the nerve pathways, in a linear distribution. The rash of blisters only occurs on one side of the body, either the right or left, because the blisters appear over an area supplied by sensory fibres of one specific nerve. The primary diagnostic sign is the distribution of the blisters in well-defined lines, or bands, on one side of the body, typically the chest. The rash causes significant pain, and the virus may result in symptoms such as headache, sensitivity to light, itching, fatigue, depression, weakness and dizziness. General symptoms of shingles often resemble the flu.
Even after the blisters burst and crust over, as they do during a chickenpox episode, symptoms such as fatigue and weakness may linger for weeks or longer. Scars are common, and some people may experience pain in the area of the outbreak for months or even years following an episode of shingles. This is known as post herpetic neuralgia, and it can be debilitating enough to prevent normal activities and interfere with work and daily obligations. Shingles is highly contagious and the virus can be spread from an affected person to anyone who has not previously suffered from chickenpox. Adults or children who catch chickenpox from someone experiencing an episode of shingles will become immune to catching both chickenpox and shingles and cannot later be reinfected. However, these people can develop shingles from the dormant chickenpox virus later in life.
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