Shingles: An acute infection caused by the herpes zoster virus, the same virus as causes chickenpox. Shingles is most common after the age of 50 and the risk rises with advancing age. Shingles occurs because of exposure to chickenpox or reactivation of the herpes zoster virus. The virus remains latent (dormant) in nerve roots for many years following chickenpox.
Shingles is an extraordinarily painful condition that involves inflammation of sensory nerves. It causes numbness, itching or pain followed by the appearance of clusters of little blisters in a strip pattern on one side of the body. The pain can persist for weeks, months or years after the rash heals and is then known as post-herpetic neuralgia.
People with shingles are contagious to persons who have not had chickenpox and can catch chickenpox from close contact with a person who has shingles. The Herpes zoster vaccine is effective in preventing or reducing the symptoms of shingles, and it is recommended for people 60 years and older. Treatment includes antiviral medication and pain medication.
The term shingles has nothing to do with a shingle on a roof or the small signboard outside the office of a doctor but is derived from the Latin cingulum meaning girdle, the idea being that shingles often girdles part of the body.
See also shingles pain and postherpetic neuralgia.