The varicella zoster virus (VZV) is the very same virus that causes chickenpox, as well as shingles. Both diseases are characterized by rash that has a red base surrounding what at first looks like a pimple the explodes into painful and seeping fluid filled blisters. Shingles is like having chickenpox all over again, but at an angrier pace.
It usually runs it’s course in approximately two weeks, during which the blister builds a crust then heals, sometimes leaving a scar. After the blister is crusted over, it is no longer contagious. However, a person who has never had chickenpox and is exposed to an active shingles infection, runs the risk of getting chickenpox.
The VZV virus exists in a latent stage for years after a chickenpox event. Certain conditions and medications can reactivate the virus to return as shingles. It is a painful disease that often calls for medical attention to manage the pain and other symptoms. There are approximately one million cases of herpes zoster in the US per year.
Reports indicate that African Americans have a low incidence of shingles infection than Caucasians. The exact reason for this is not known.
Initially, the pain is the first inclination of a shingles attack due to damage to the nerve damage, and occurs in the area where the virus has been hibernating, but the rash may not yet have come to the skin’s surface. Other symptoms may include those resembling the flu, such as fever, chills, and headache.
Pain can be mild to severe and is accompanied by the classic red rash that become open blisters that are slower to progress than chickenpox (varicella). Common locations for this disease are the abdomen and chest areas, and usually on one side following a dermatomal pattern. This means the blisters follow the nerve route where the virus had been hiding for years.
An often seen complication of herpes zoster (shingles) is PHN, or postherpetic neuralgia which is a painful aftermath of shingles that can last for months or years. Bacterial infections of the blisters is also a complication related issue. Keeping these blisters as clean as possible will usually circumvent this occurence.
Our immune system falters as we age, making our body conducive to the development of a zoster infection. A weakened immune system caused by HIV/AIDS, cancer, or organ transplantation can trigger a bout of zoster. Once you have had chickenpox, you can get shingles later in life. Although shingles is thought of as a disease of the elderly, anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles including children.
Shingles is diagnosed by laboratory blood tests, as well as making note of it’s characteristics, such as appearing on only one side of the body.
Treatment involves the use of medications such as antivirals, steroids, antiepileptic and antidepression meds, analgesics, as well as skin lotions and creams to soothe painful blisters and sensitive skin areas.