It can sometimes be difficult to figure out why you might have painful blisters on your body. You might think a painful rash is due to an allergy, or maybe even bug bites. But painful blisters can sometimes be a sign of shingles, a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (the same virus that causes chicken pox) that can be extraordinarily painful. “Some people mistake shingles blisters for spider bites, says geriatrician Dr Tracy Lippard. “Getting care quickly is important, as the medication to treat shingles works best if it’s started within three days of the rash.”
This is one of the hallmark symptoms of shingles, also called herpes zoster. “Shingles is always on one side of the body,” says general practitioner Dr Randy Wexler. “It never crosses the midline.”
A sudden sensitivity to bright light, whether sunshine or fluorescent lighting, can be a subtle sign that something is amiss. According to Dr Larisa Geskin, associate professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Centre, it may mimic the feeling of a mild migraine coming on.
Got your flu shot but still feel like you’ve been hit by a truck? It could be one of the symptoms of shingles. “It’s literally like having the flu, with body aches, fatigue and chills without fever,” says Dr Geskin. (This is the reason why you should get the shingles vaccine if you’re over 50.)
Red bumps in a certain pattern on your body could be one of the early symptoms of shingles. The rash can start with red bumps anywhere on the body, and usually takes a shape known as dermatol, according to Dr Geskin. That means they are usually linear and in a pattern related to the branches of the spinal nerve that innervates that section of the skin.
It’s no secret that stress can wreak havoc on the immune system, but it can also be a trigger for shingles. “Stressors such as hospitalisation for a medical illness or a huge financial setback may be overwhelming,” says dermatologist Dr Evan Rieder. According to Dr Rieder, even mild stressors like a sleepless night or a runny nose can weaken the body’s immune system and allow reactivation of the virus that causes chicken pox and shingles.
Chest pain is scary, but it’s not always a symptom of a heart attack. “Prior to the appearance of vesicles on the chest, patients may experience sharp or burning pain,” says Dr Sylvia Morris (vesicles are fluid-filled blisters). According to Dr Morris, chest pain that feels itchy and painful to the touch could be an early sign of shingles.
A nagging headache can come from stress, allergies, a reaction to certain foods – or the onset of shingles. A shingles-onset headache is unilateral, meaning it’s felt on only one side of the head. “The headache may be centred around the eye, the top of the head, or the forehead,” Dr Morris says.
It’s easy to ignore minor aches and pains, especially in middle age, but pay attention to the location. “One symptom that people might ignore is pain in a certain area even with no evidence of a rash,” says integrative physician, Dr Patrick Fratellone. “There are a few patients who have shingles and no rash.” In those cases, a blood test can help with the diagnosis.
If you get migraines, you may be inclined to dismiss this as yet another headache. But don’t ignore this nuance because it could be one of the symptoms of shingles. “If you develop pain and tingling in the eye area along with any type of rash, see a doctor immediately,” says Dr Kristine Arthur. “If left untreated, it could cause blindness.”
“Shingles pain usually has a sharp stabbing, burning, intensely itchy, or pins-and-needles quality,” says Dr Alison Lynch. It usually shows up in the trunk area of the body, including the chest and upper and lower back. Dr Lynch says this symptom can begin several days before the rash appears.
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