Shingles is caused by a virus infection and it is characterized by a painful rash. It can occur anywhere in the body but often appears as a single line of blisters on the left or right side of the torso.
It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which is actually the same virus that causes chickenpox.
After a person has chickenpox, the virus is still in the nerve tissue around the spinal cord and brain but it is inactive. After several years, it can become active again as shingles. It is not a life-threatening condition but it can be uncomfortable and painful.
Vaccines can be used to reduce the risk of developing shingles and early treatment can make the healing process shorter and reduce the risk of complications.
Signs And Symptoms Of Shingles
There are different signs and symptoms depending on the stage of shingles
Prodromal stage or before the rash appears:
- Pain, tingling, burning or burning sensation in the affected nerves.
- Flu-like symptoms but usually without fever.
- Swelling and tenderness of lymph nodes.
Active stage or when rash/blisters become visible
- A strip or small area of rash becomes visible anywhere on one side of the body.
- Rash on the forehead, nose, cheek and around an eye.
- Pain which is often described as having many needles piercing the skin.
- Blisters can open, ooze then crust within 5 days.
Post-herpetic neuralgia or chronic pain stage – this is a complication of shingles that lasts 30 days to a few years
- Burning, aching or stabbing pain where the rash is located.
- Persistent pain that can last years.
- Extreme sensitivity of the skin.
- Pain on the forehead and/or chest.
Causes And Risk Factors Of Shingles
Again, shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which also causes chickenpox. Anyone who already had chickenpox can develop shingles when the virus re-activates after being dormant for years. Here are things that increase risk of shingles:
- Already had chickenpox.
- Being an older adult above the age of 50.
- Having a compromised immune system caused by another disease like HIV infection.
- Going through a stressful or traumatic period.
- Having cancer or undergoing cancer treatment.
- Taking medication that can weaken the immune system.
Tests And Diagnosis For Shingles
Shingles is diagnosed based on the symptoms of the patient especially the rash and blisters. In some cases, a tissue culture of the blisters may be needed for laboratory examination.
Treatments and Medications
There is no cure for shingles but prompt treatment using antiviral drugs prescribed by a physician significantly speeds up the healing process and reduces the risk of developing complications. The medications may include acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex).
To control pain, the physician may prescribe any of the following:
- Numbing agents like lidocaine in gel, cream or skin patch form.
- Capsaicin solution
- Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline
- Narcotic medication like codeine
- Corticosteroids and local anesthetics
Shingles typically lasts from two weeks to one and a half month. Most people only get it once in their life but it is not impossible to get it two or more times.
Precaution And Self Care
The severity and duration of pain can be decreased by:
- Taking good care of the sores on the skin.
- Not picking and scratching the blisters. Picking and scratching delays the natural healing process and can even cause infection
- To ease discomfort, use a cold, moist compress then anti-itch lotions or anti-inflammatory solutions can be used.
- To help sores heal faster, corn starch or baking soda can be applied directly. You can even prepare a bath with corn starch or baking soda and soak the affected area.
- Soak crusted sores using tap water or Burrow’s solution to clean them away, soothe the skin and decrease oozing.
- If the inflammation is severe, talk to your doctor about topical creams that can alleviate the pain and reduce inflammation.
- If infection occurs, prescription antibiotics may be needed so consult your physician.
- Non-prescription pain medication may also be used but you should consult your physician first in order to prevent side effects.
Shingles can be prevented by getting the vaccine Zostavax. This is often recommended for people older than 60 especially those who have a compromised immune system. It works by boosting the immune system to prevent shingles from developing. It can also be used to prevent the recurrence of shingles. There is no maximum age for getting Zostavax and only one dose is needed.