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Shingles won't kill you, but after a few weeks of relentless pain -- you may wish it did.

Pain, in fact, is the first symptom. It is a strange, unlocalized pain, like an itch that can't be scratched. It is not unusual to visit several doctors and have expensive tests done without a diagnosis. But within a week or so, the cause becomes obvious as you develop patchy red islands of blisters that rupture to form an oozing crust. Even after these have gradually healed, the pain can remain for years -- morning and night -- as your constant companion.

What causes Shingles? The chicken-pox virus is often dismissed as a minor childhood illness, but Varicella zoster is actually a member of the feared Herpes virus family that can cause fatal encephalitis. Even after you survive the childhood infection, the virus remains dormant in the nerves of your body -- waiting for the day when it may return in a strange and unfamiliar form.

When reactivated by stress, steroids, or weakness of the immune system late in life, the virus awakens and begins spreading along a spinal root "dermatome" -- a belt-like patch of skin on one side of your flank or chest. The infection produces glistening ulcers that become open wounds, draining clear fluid loaded with virus particles. The ulcers can take weeks to heal, often forming permanent scars. If you are unfortunate enough to develop Shingles on your face, you can be disfigured or blinded.

Is there any good news? Your family may treat you like a pariah, but Shingles is rarely contagious. It also won't cross the midline or spread over your whole body, and early treatment with Zovirax or similar drugs can cut the severity by two-thirds. Best of all, vaccination may let you avoid Shingles altogether. But if you do suffer the full course, don't miss a chance to show off the scars to your grandchildren and terrify them with stories of your ordeal.

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