The varicella-zoster virus, also known as the chickenpox virus, lies dormant in the body’s nerve roots after you have chickenpox. According to the National Institutes of Health, 25% of the population experienced a resurgence of the virus later in life, causing a condition known as shingles.
The time frame and severity of shingles symptoms varies from person to person. The first signs of shingles are pain, tingling and/or numbness in an area on one side of the body, usually on the back or chest but occasionally on the head, face, one arm or one leg. Flu-like symptoms are also typical, including nausea, diarrhea and chills, but not fever. The rash shingles causes usually presents a few days after the start of these symptoms, but may occur weeks after.
The shingles rash usually wraps around the back to the side, stomach or chest. This is because the virus travels along the affected sensory nerve roots, which exit the spine and wrap around each side of the body. The pain associated with the rash may be mild or severe. Shingles rashes generally clear up within 4 weeks. They develop fluid-filled blisters which may burst and scab over, leaving scars.
The main complication associated with shingles is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This condition is characterized by continued pain after the rash has cleared that can last anywhere from a month to several years. People with PHN may experience severe burning or stabbing pain where the rash was as well as extreme pain when the area is touched. The exact cause is unknown, but it is theorized that the inflammation that initially causes pain causes some people’s nerves to become hypersensitive so that pain is sensed even after the inflammation subsides.
The severe, chronic pain associated with PHN can disrupt a person’s life. Daily activities from eating and sleeping to simply wearing clothing can become difficult. Depression is a common correlate of such chronic pain. A number of studies suggest that early treatment of shingles can shorten the amount of time the patient is in pain. It is recommended that people are treated with antiviral medications within three days of the rash’s appearance. See one study attesting to the value of early treatment at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9852981.
Another concern associated with shingles is eye problems. If shingles affects the face, the virus may be affecting the cornea. Damage to the eye can occur in the form of scarring, having permanent consequences for vision. As with PHN, early treatment is likely the key to preventing eye damage.
Shingles pain can be managed in different ways, depending on the severity of your pain and your preferences. Narcotic medications are prescribed for the most severe cases. Some rely on over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. Anesthetic patches and creams are also available to numb shingles pain. Those looking for a natural approach may consider using a capsaicin cream. Capsaicin is a chemical in chili peppers and has demonstrated therapeutic benefits as a topical pain reliever.
Your chances of developing shingles increases if you are over 50 and have a weakened immune system caused by stress, physical illness or diseases like diabetes, AIDS and cancer. A vaccine is available to help prevent shingles and is recommended for people over 60.
It is important to be aware of common misdiagnoses associated with shingles, such as poison oak or ivy, scabies and herpes simplex virus. Be sure to tell your doctor about any flu-like symptoms that preceded the rash; this will help confirm a shingles diagnosis and speed up the course of your treatment to prevent prolonged complications.
Back pain and a rash are symptoms of the shingles virus. Knowing when to see a doctor depends on understanding the situation you’re in.