You’ve got a painful, blistery rash. Could you have shingles?
Odds are, you might. “More than a million people a year will experience a shingles attack. In fact, about a third of people will have shingles at some point in their lives,” says Mass General Brigham emergency medicine doctor Joseph W. Kopp, MD.
Luckily, a shingles infection is usually easy to diagnose, both in person and in virtual doctor visits. “It’s not something you should ignore,” Dr. Kopp adds.
Shingles is an infection of the nerves. It’s caused by herpes zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After someone recovers from a chickenpox infection, the virus goes dormant, hiding inside certain nerve cells. But the virus can reawaken years later, triggering shingles.
Shingles is more common in people over 50 and people with a weakened immune system. But it can occur in anyone who has had chickenpox, at any age. It can be triggered by stress—or just plain bad luck.
Like chickenpox, shingles causes a rash. It starts as red spots, which morph into blisters that scab over after a week or so. The rash can be tingly and itchy, and it often causes burning or shooting pains across the infected nerves. “Unfortunately, a shingles infection can be pretty painful,” Dr. Kopp says.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for pain to appear before the rash pops up. “If you have pain or tingling on a certain area of the skin, and then develop a rash in that spot, it may be shingles,” he says.
Another clue you might have shingles: The rash typically only appears in one area, on either your left side or your right. Shingles infects the spinal nerves that stretch from the spinal cord to either side of the body. Since shingles follows the pathway of the nerve it infects, it generally appears in a swath on just one side of the body.
Is shingles treatable by a virtual doctor visit? The answer is usually yes. Doctors diagnose shingles by asking the patient about their symptoms and examining the distinctive rash. Since they don’t typically need to do any lab tests to confirm the diagnosis, it makes a lot of sense to see an online doctor for shingles, Dr. Kopp says.
However, there are some reasons you might want to head to the ER or an urgent care clinic if you suspect shingles. Those reasons include:
Another benefit of seeing a doctor for shingles virtually? You’re more likely to see a doctor right away. And when you suspect shingles, there are good reasons to get diagnosed ASAP:
Shingles treatment is effective, but it’s much better to avoid the infection in the first place. That’s where shingles vaccines come in. Experts recommend the vaccine for all adults 50 and older, even if you’ve had shingles before.
Over time, your body’s immune system starts to forget about the herpes zoster virus. “The vaccine reintroduces the virus to your immune system, so that it learns to recognize the virus again,” Dr. Kopp says. “Having the vaccine decreases the chance of getting shingles by about 90%.”
Anyone who has had shingles will tell you: It’s no fun. Fortunately, modern vaccines and antiviral treatment can take the sting out of this common infection.