The stages or phases of the shingles infection can be understood from the point that the herpes zoster virus first appears in the form of chickenpox during ones childhood till the point of probable postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) in the later years of life. The shingles timeline spans over several decades. One normally develops this condition after crossing the 50 years age bracket.
Gaining a better understanding of the different stages of shingles infection can go a long way understanding what all to expect when it occurs. Let’s go over its different stages in slight detail now.
The first stage of shingles – Chickenpox
Anyone who had suffered from chickenpox during his/her growing up years is at a high risk of suffering from shingles during the later years of his/her life. When you develop chickenpox your body gets infected by the varicella virus, a part of the herpes virus family. Chickenpox is very contagious and is normally characterized by the formation of red, blistering and itchy rashes all over the body. Kids suffering from chickenpox also get constant headaches and fever along with the rash formation. The condition generally heals on its own in a matter of 6 to 10 days’ time. The human body’s immune system is such that once it suffers a chickenpox bout, it conditions itself to not allow it to develop again. However, even after the chickenpox rash gets healed, its related virus (varicella zoster) recedes and stays hidden inside the nerve cells for several decades.
The second stage of shingles – Reactivation of virus or the prodromal stage
Our immune system does a fairly good job of keeping the varicella virus suppressed and dormant. However as we develop certain diseases like AIDS/HIV, cancer etc., take certain types of medications such as prednisone or close in on the later years of our lives, our immune system loses its strength significantly. As a result, with our bodies’ defenses being down, the varicella virus which stays dormant for so many years gets reactivated and triggers the onset of shingles.
You are highly likely to experience symptoms like headache, fever and fatigue, sometimes accompanied by severe itching, pain or burning sensation in the affected skin area before the actual shingles rash formation. People about to get the shingles rash may also complain of chills, nausea, diarrhea and stomach pain. Their lymph nodes may get inflamed and turn tender. Some of the shingles patients also complain of severe tingling sensation, accompanied by numbness in the area (that eventually becomes the ground of shingles rash formation). All these sensations can be felt around the neck, face, belly, limbs or the head regions.
The third stage of shingles – The actual rash formation: the active or the eruptive stage
This is the time when the actual swelling and redness starts developing at the shingles infected body part. You will gradually witness the formation of a small strip or band of rashes 2 to 4 days after the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. Although this rash may develop on any body part, it normally forms on either side of one’s trunk. The blisters get filled with clear fluid, which turn cloudy, yellowish or brownish after 3 to 4 days’ time. These blisters may continue to form for around 5 days and may cause severe irritation, itchiness, discomfort and pain. The pain associated with the shingles rash during this stage is often compared to the piercing feeling when you’re pricked by needles. Furthermore, these blisters normally break open and crust over after 7 to 10 days. On the whole, the shingles rash starts to heal on its own within 2 to 4 weeks’ time. Starting consuming some good anti-viral medications during this phase can help significantly in decreasing the length and severity of the shingles outbreak.
The fourth stage of shingles – Crusting
After about 7 to 10 days of the shingles rashes and blisters formation, they start crusting over and falling off on their own. You may witness some irregularity in your skin pigmentation when these scabs fall off your skin. Please note, this is only temporary and is permanent only in the severe cases of the shingles infection. As also mentioned above, under the normal circumstances, the shingles rashes heal completely within 2 to 4 weeks’ time.
The fifth stage of shingles – Postherpetic neuralgia or PHN
The shingles infection is considered to have transformed into postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) if it stays on for a minimum of 30 days’ time period. It may continue for anywhere ranging from 30 days to several years. Almost one in every five shingles patients suffers from postherpetic neuralgia. The symptoms of PHN include high sensitivity, extreme burning sensations, stabbing pain and severe aches in the affected body area. The condition may even adversely affect the natural ability of a person to indulge in day-to-day activities like sleeping, eating, carrying out daily chores etc. The patient may even go into acute depression and develop insomnia.