Shingles is an infection caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. Almost half of all Americans will have contracted shingles by the age of 80. Its most common sign is a painful rash that covers a small area of the body, but as you'll see, there are other, more graphic symptoms possible as well.
When treated correctly, the lesions of a shingles rash don't cause any permanent scars. However, if left untreated, they may become infected, which greatly increases your risk of scarring.
Photo via Svdmolen, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0
While rare, shingles can lead to encephalitis, which is the swelling of the brain. Symptoms vary depending on which area of the brain is affected, but some common ones include seizures, headaches, sensitivity to light, and even personality changes.
If a shingles outbreak migrates towards the face there is a chance you will develop herpes zoster opthalmicus—or an eye infection. Complications of this can include pain, blurry vision, and even blidness. Quick treatment is essential for staving off the serious symptoms of an infected eye.
While shingles is primarily a skin condition, in some instances it can migrate to other body parts. If it happens to reach the lungs, pneumonia may set in. Luckily, this condition normally improves once skin symptoms begin to disappear.
Disseminated Herpes Zoster
In most cases, shingles only develops on a small area of the body. However, as mentioned earlier, it does have the ability to migrate elsewhere, which is known as disseminated herpes zoster. In addition to affecting large patches of the skin, it can also lead to infection in the brain or liver.
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The visible symptoms of shingles typically clear up within a month of development. However, if you have sustained nerve damage due to the infection, you may experience pain long afterwards because of a condition known as postherpetic neuralgia. While there are treatments to lessen sensations, it cannot be completely cured.
Ramsay Hunt Syndrome
If a shingles outbreak occurs near your face, it could possibly spread to and damge the nerves near your ears, leading to a condition known as Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. Permanent facial paralyis and hearing loss are the two main symptoms associated with the syndrome.
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Shingles can sometimes cause inflammation of the spinal cord, which is also known as transverse myelitis. If left untreated, this serious condition can lead to pain, numbness, urinary incontinence, and even paralysis.
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Like transverse myletis, meningitis causes swelling in the spinal cord—however, it also leads to swelling in the brain. Common symptoms of meningitis include light sensitivity, fever, nausea, and neck stiffness. While some patients recover without treatment, this condition can turn deadly if it's not closely monitored.
While your body is fighting off the initial shingles infection, you are more susceptible to developing another. When this occurs, it's known as a superinfection. While a secondary infection may too affect the skin, it's possible for it to target other organs as well.
Photo via brownpau, 2010, CC BY 2.0