This rash itches and hurts. What could it be?

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It's time to talk about that nasty little word we have seen on television commercials: "shingles."

To utter the term commonly elicits a negative and sometimes fearful response in people who have endured this painful rash or known someone who has.

The evolution and severity of this virus can vary from person to person depending on a few key factors, including an older age and a suppressed or weakened immune system.

Before getting into the general appearance and life cycle of the shingles, it is helpful to know the specifics of its cause.

The formal name for shingles is herpes zoster virus (HZV). In general, people hear the word "herpes" and think of the cold sores people get on their lips during the summer or in times of increased stress. But the herpes zoster virus actually originates from a childhood illness most of us know as the chickenpox (varicella zoster virus).

After a person has had chickenpox, the virus then lies "in hiding" on the nerve roots waiting for the perfect opportunity to reappear in its transformed version, shingles.

The shingles rash may present differently depending on individual factors. For many, an insidious tingling or burning begins in a localized area on one side of the body (this early symptom is referred to as the prodrome).

Some might experience a slight deep ache, similar to the feeling of a pulled muscle.

Next, the skin becomes pink with clusters of small clear or yellow fluid-filled blisters, which will usually burn and itch.

Be aware that this is when the shingles actually sheds the virus, and it is contagious.

Generally, the eruption appears within three days of experiencing the pain or discomfort. Over the next seven to 10 days, the blisters will dry up and become crusted. The crusted rash may persist for up to three weeks.

Shingles have the potential to appear anywhere on the body with the most prevalent locations being the abdomen, chest or back and less commonly developing on the face, neck, scalp, arms or legs.

Keep in mind that this virus will present on only one side of the body.

If shingles appear near your eye, your dermatologist will likely refer you to an ophthalmologist to evaluate optic infection. It is very important to consider early treatment to avoid long-term complications.

Transmission can be avoided by not touching the blistered area and, in the event of contact, carefully washing your hands. Attempt to stay away from anyone who is pregnant while infected with the shingles because the virus can cause harm to an unborn baby if transmitted.

The shingles vaccine reduces the incidence of infection by about 50 percent. It is important to get the vaccine if your doctor recommends doing so because it has been shown to decrease the severity and painful side effects after the virus has run its course.

Seek treatment by your local dermatologist if you experience symptoms of shingles.

Early recognition and antiviral therapy is the key to shortening the duration and potential discomfort to an infected individual.

Emily K. Murphy, MSN, FNP-C is certified nurse practitioner at Hilton Head Dermatology and Skin Cancer Center, PA. hiltonheaddermatology.com

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