Herpes zoster is commonly known as shingles. It is also known simply as zoster or zona. Shingles or herpes zoster is a nerve infection that results from the reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox. The chickenpox virus (varicella zoster) continues to reside in a dormant state in the body’s nervous system after an episode of chickenpox. It can go on to cause shingles many years after the chickenpox infection.
The factors that cause the virus to be reactivated are not clear. We only know that the virus breaks out of nerve cell bodies and travels down the nerve to cause a viral infection of the skin in the vicinity of the nerve. It is possible that a lowered immunity may trigger the shingles outbreak. Illness, stress and trauma may also trigger herpes zoster. Cancer, AIDS, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, immunodepressants and cortisone can also make people susceptible to shingles.
Herpes zoster or shingles causes more pain and less itching than chickenpox. In the early stages of shingles, a person may feel a burning or tingling sensation on the skin. The skin becomes extremely sensitive on an area on one side of the body. The painful sensation persists for one to three days, after which a rash develops in the same area. This may be accompanied by a headache or fever.
The rash soon develops into blisters containing clear fluid. The blisters later turn yellow or bloody before forming a crust or scab. The blisters usually heal after two to four weeks, leaving scars and skin discoloration.
Shingles is often very painful because the virus travels along the nerve to the skin, causing damage and inflammation to the affected nerve. The pain can be so severe that painkillers become necessary.
Shingles or herpes zoster usually affects the trunk and buttocks, but it can also appear on the face, neck, arms or legs. Blisters that appear on the tip of the nose may indicate possible eye involvement. Shingles on the face near the eye must be treated immediately to prevent possible permanent eye damage.
Herpes zoster usually clears on its own in a few weeks. However, a shingles sufferer may require pain relievers to ease the discomfort. Cool compresses may also bring relief. If the infection is diagnosed early, oral antiviral medication can be prescribed within 72 hours from the time the rash appears. Antiviral medication does not cure shingles, but it helps to heal the rash more quickly. The severity of the symptoms will also be minimized. Antiviral medication can also prevent painful complications such as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN).
A corticosteroid may be prescribed along with painkillers to reduce inflammation and pain. If postherpetic neuralgia develops, antidepressants and anticonvulsants may be of help.