Most of us get chickenpox as children, and a few of us are left with a tell-tale souvenir of the experience: a tiny scar on the face or neck where we scratched once too often. But some of us are left with another legacy of that usually harmless childhood infection: shingles.
Shingles is an excruciatingly painful rash which occurs in people who have had chickenpox. The virus that causes chickenpox, scientifically known as the varicella-zoster virus, is the same one that causes shingles (a form of the herpes virus). What happens is that after you’ve had the pox, it lies dormant in your body. Then, perhaps decades later, it re-emerges – in the form of a painful and desperately painful and unpleasant rash.
Sadly, shingles is a lot nastier than chickenpox for the vast majority of people who come down with it. The worst bit, although it is fairly uncommon, is that you can be left with postherpetic neuralgia. The best way to explain it is that your skin “retains” a memory of the rash, making it extremely painful to touch for years to come, even after the original infection is gone.
About one in five people who develop shingles get postherpetic neuralgia, and the majority of them see the pain disappear in about one to three months. For people who have it quite badly there are several medications on offer, including ones used to treat depression and seizures (now there’s a bonus!). However, it usually takes a few weeks for them to work.
Some researchers say that shingles is not just a skin disease requiring a trip to the dermatologist, but a nerve disorder. It has been described as feeling like a hot curling iron is being applied to the skin. The reason: the root of the nerves is where the chickenpox virus has been hiding ever since you got it, probably as a child. Now it’s emerging again – but this time with a vengeance.
Knowing You Have Shingles
Shingles can mimic other infections, but it’s actually fairly easy to spot (no pun intended). For some bizarre reason it occurs on one side of the body or face only, and is characterized by a chickenpox-type rash full of fluid-filled blisters. Some lucky folk just find that their shingles itch, others find them too painful to believe.
According to the Mayo Clinic, here are the signs that you might have shingles:
Pain, burning, tingling, numbness or extreme sensitivity in a certain part of your body
A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
Fever and chills
Upset stomach or abdominal pain
Please note that if you never had chickenpox but were inoculated against it, you are still a prime candidate for contracting shingles. Sorry!
The Zostavax vaccine will reduce the risk of getting shingles – and can reduce the duration of the infection if you catch it. Originally the vaccine was for people aged 60 and above only. In trials, it cut the number of infection in half. Treating a first attack with antiviral drugs can also reduce the severity of the infection.
Interestingly, adults with shingles can pass the virus onto others, usually a child, and he or she will get chickenpox. You cannot pass actual shingles on to others, and people with chickenpox cannot pass on shingles to others.
Here is what an individual identified only as Q wrote on a sports website about his experience with shingles:
“Had it on the side of my head over to my eyelid about 3 years ago. Sore head for about a week, then got worse and eventually felt like someone was crushing my head in a vice for about a week. Was on antiviral drugs for a couple of weeks plus 2 types of painkillers. Also eye drops to stop spread onto eyeball which can cause blindness. I still get pain in that side of my head now and again, apparently this is quite common and can last for years.”
Like its little brother chickenpox, shingles is usually relatively harmless. But it can cause complications in some people. If you are HIV-positive, had had a recent organ transplant or have a suppressed immunity for other reasons, stay far away – ditto if you are pregnant or an adult who has never had chickenpox. In these people, shingles can cause severe complications.
There is often the rare complication of Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which occurs when shingles affects the ear. This can cause not only earache but also dizziness, facial paralysis and confusion. Extremely rarely shingles can also affect the brain and vision.
Remember that the virus can be reactivated, although typically this happens with elderly people who have an impaired immune condition. Having chemo or radiotherapy, excess alcohol consumption, taking steroids long-term and stress can all play a role in activating shingles. In fact, doctors have said that stress can play a major role in our getting the virus.
If you get shingles stay away from vulnerable people and take it easy. It will usually clear up on its own within a few weeks. You can take oatmeal baths and apply creams to relieve the symptoms, much as you would do with chickenpox, and also take antiviral drugs – the earlier the better. They will shorten the duration of the infection and help make it more bearable.
The information in the article is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care an appropriate health care provider.