Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a virus that causes painful and concentrated skin rashes with blisters. In many cases, these blisters and rashes follow a stripe pattern. The rash occurs as a result of the varicella-zoster virus, which is also known as the chickenpox. Read on to find out more about this skin condition and possible treatment methods.
What Is Shingles?
After a person has suffered from the chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus goes dormant in certain nerves of the body. Should the virus ever become active again, many years after the first outbreak, the person becomes infected with shingles instead of chickenpox. While the shingles rash may appear anywhere throughout the body, it most often appears around the waistline or side of the trunk. Shingles is not considered a life threatening virus, but can become quite painful. Early treatment is crucial to prevent further complications caused by shingles.
Many shingles patients experience pain before they develop a rash or blisters. Within several days, the pain will become stronger or escalate into feelings of numbness or tingling. They might also experience itchy burning. Red patches on the skin will begin to appear, along with blisters. These blisters might burst, forming ulcers that are dry and become crusty. This crust should fall off on its own within two to three weeks, with permanent scarring being a rare occurrence. Aside from the side of the trunk and waistline, the rash may appear in other areas of the body, typically around face and ears.
Other symptoms include:
- Body aches and pain
- Abdominal pain
- Drooping eyelids
- Pain around the joints
- Loss of hearing
- Vision issues
- Swollen glands
- Genital lesions
- Feeling sick, nausea
Nerves and muscles around the face may also be affected, causing facial movements to become difficult.
Causes and Risk Factors
As it was mentioned above, the main cause for shingles is the varicella-zoster virus becoming active again, after lying dormant for years after a person has recovered from the chickenpox. Why the virus becomes active again remains a mystery, and in most cases, only one outbreak will occur. It has been theorized that the infection may occur due to a weaker immune system as a person grows older.
Those at risk for developing shingles include:
- Individuals age 60 and older
- Having the chickenpox during infancy, before the age of 1
- A weakened immune system due to a chronic illness or medications
A person with shingles is contagious through direct contact with open sores. Once the virus has passed, the recipient will develop the chickenpox as opposed to shingles. People who have had the chickenpox are not at risk of catching shingles. If you have shingles, you should avoid contact with pregnant women [See - Shingles During Pregnancy], babies and young children. You should also avoid people who do not have a strong immune system.
Shingles Tests and Diagnosis
Doctors are able to diagnose shingles visually through a physical examination. The doctor will always ask questions about a person’s medical history. In some rare cases, tests may be needed, including skin samples to identify the varicella-zoster virus. However, the telltale signs of blisters and rash over a person’s skin is usually enough to identify shingles.
Treatment for Shingles
While there is no specific cure for shingles, early treatment with antiviral medication is important for preventing complications and speeding up the healing process. Common medications used to treat shingles include:
These medications should be taken as soon as a person begins feeling any pain or burning sensations, which are the first signs of shingles. Medication is typically in oral form, although some individuals may require the medicine intravenously (through an IV).
Other medications that might be prescribed include:
- Corticosteriods to reduce swelling and pain.
- Antihistamines to reduce itching.
- Numbing medication that can be applied through a gel, cream, spray or skin patch.
- Other pain medications.
A physician may also recommend the following for home care:
- Cold compresses to help reduce pain.
- Baths and lotions to reduce itching.
- Plenty of rest.
- Keeping the skin clean.
- Isolating the infected person from those who may develop severe complications if they are exposed to the virus, like pregnant women.
Although it is not considered a life-threatening condition, there are some complications regarding shingles that people need to be aware of:
- There is a possibility that pain will persist for months, and even years, after the outbreak.
- A second shingles outbreak.
- Impaired vision or blindness if shingles occurs in a person’s eye.
- Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which can result in damaged nerves around the face and the ears causing facial paralysis, facial drooping, difficulty eating, deafness and difficulty making any movements with the face.