Shingles: Symptoms, Cause and Treatment

Shingles, also called Herpes Zoster, is an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox – the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). The varicella-zoster virus is now recognized as one of the eight herpes viruses that infect humans. The varicella-zoster virus is closely related to herpes simplex virus (HSV) types 1 and 2, however, it has become clear that the varicella-zoster virus is distinct from the herpes simplex virus both in its biology and in its clinical behavior.

Causes

Shingles is a second eruption of the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Varicella-zoster is part of a group of viruses called herpes viruses, which includes the viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes. Many of these viruses can lie hidden in your nervous system after an initial infection and remain inactive for years before causing another infection.

Anyone who’s had chickenpox may develop shingles. If your immune system doesn’t destroy the entire virus during the initial infection, the remaining virus can enter your nervous system and lie hidden for years. Eventually, it may reactivate and travel along nerve pathways to your skin — producing the shingles. However, it’s most common in older adults: More than half the shingles cases occur in adults over 60.

Shingles is more common in older adults and those who have weak immune systems. The virus responsible for shingles is called Varicella zoster. Anyone who has previously had chickenpox may subsequently develop shingles. Blisters can occur in more than one area and the virus may affect internal organs, including the gastrointestinal tract, the lungs and the brain. If you have a weak immune system, it is best to avoid close contact with someone with shingles.

Treatment

Antiviral medications are also routinely prescribed in severe cases of shingles or when the eye is affected. Such treatment needs to begin within three days of getting the rash to be effective, so if you suspect you have shingles, see your doctor immediately. For reasons that are not completely understood, some PHN patients get no relief from pain medication, and what works in one case may not be effective in another.

If you have pain that persists longer than a month after your shingles rash heals, your health professional may diagnose postherpetic neuralgia, the most common complication of shingles. Postherpetic neuralgia can cause pain for months or years. It affects 10% to 15% of those who experience shingles.

Shingles symptoms generally disappear within three to five weeks. However, treatment is recommended to help encourage shingles pain relief. Your health care provider can offer you oral antiviral medications, including acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, in order to speed up the course of the shingles disease. You may also be prescribed pain relieving medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

Symptoms of Shingles

For people with intense symptoms, there are many medications your doctor can prescribe to treat shingles. Steroids (prednisone) and tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline) are also prescribed to lessen shingles symptoms, and the former might help prevent PHN. Zynoxin Topical Solution is one medication which works topically to help relieve shingles symptoms. Acyclovir also is used to treat the symptoms of chickenpox, shingles, herpes virus infections. Prescription antiviral medicines don’t cure shingles, but they can shorten the duration of symptoms. Treatment of the symptoms of shingles through compresses and pain relievers is typically recommended by doctors. Try oatmeal bath products, available at drugstores, to relieve symptoms of shingles. Oral drugs to treat shingles operate better if they are started within three days of the start of symptoms.