Shingles, known medically as herpes zoster, is a viral infection of the nerve roots that usually manifests as a rash or blisters on the skin. The rash may be accompanied by pain or numbness in the affected area. Although inconvenient and uncomfortable, shingles is treatable, although not preventable.
What Causes Shingles?
Shingles is caused by a virus, in fact, the same virus that causes chicken pox, varicella zoster. In the case of those who have been previously exposed to chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in their nervous system even after they recover. When the virus is re-activated, by factors including disease, stress, aging, or some combination of the three, it travels up the nerve to affect the skin in the area of skin related to that nerve. Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles, even if they were infected and recovered years ago. Additionally, the blisters caused by shingles are full of the chicken pox virus, and can transmit it to other people. While most adults are immune to chicken pox, those who never had chicken pox, or those with weakened immune systems are at risk for catching chicken pox from those with shingles.
Symptoms of Shingles
Those with shingles may not immediately experience the characteristic shingles rash. Rather, they will experience an unusual sensitivity on one area of skin, which often is accompanied by tingling, numbness, or a burning sensation where the rash later appears. Some people experience flu like symptoms, including head aches, enlarged lymph nodes, and sensitivity to light. However, those affected will not have the fever that usually comes with the flu.
As the virus progresses, the rash appears on the sensitive area of skin, usually only on one side of the body, and in a band or strip formation. The rash consists of blisters that fill with fluid and then collapse before drying out and crusting over. The rash usually clears up in about two to four weeks, although residual pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia, can last for much longer, in some cases, years. However, this usually only occurs in those who experience shingles on their faces or chests.
Treatment for Shingles
Shingles is generally treated with a combination of antiviral medications, painkillers, and soothing lotions. The most commonly prescribed antiviral for shingles is aciclovir, as it reduces the length of the virus, and therefore the probability of complications. Generic painkillers such as paracetamol can help to manage the pain associated with the virus, and calamine lotion is used to reduce the itching. In more severe cases, the GP may prescribe stronger painkillers, or in the case of those with compromised immune systems, injections of antiviral antibodies. Additionally, the affected area is kept as clean and dry as possible, usually by covering it with a dressing.
Shingles generally resolves itself without serious complications, however, if it appears near the eyes, forehead or nose, the patient should seek out a GP or opthamologist, as shingles in this area can cause blindness. However, this is extremely unusual; the most common after effect of shingles is scarring, although this does not occur in the majority of cases.
Although generally not dangerous, those who think they may be affected with shingles should seek medical advice as soon as possible, in order to lower the risk of complications.