Shingles: Symptoms, Causes, And Treatments
Shingles is a distinctive and painful rash that is the descendent of the chicken pox virus. If you’ve ever had the chickenpox there’s a good chance the virus is still at large in your body. The varicella zoster virus can lie dormant for decades without causing any symptoms. It can then wake up and travel along nerve fibers to the skin where it causes a painful red rash.
The shingles rash is a distinctive cluster of fluid-filled blisters, often found as a band around one side of the waist. This explains the term “shingles,” which comes from the Latin word for belt. The next most common location is on one side of the forehead or around one eye. But shingles blisters can occur anywhere on the body.
Symptoms: Before the Rash
The first symptoms appear one to five days before the rash. These early warning signs are usually felt in the location where the rash will develop:
In addition to the localized pain and rash, other symptoms may include:
- Upset stomach
The varicella zoster virus is the source for both chickenpox and shingles. The first time someone is exposed to the virus, it causes the widespread, itchy sores known as chickenpox. The virus never goes away. Instead, it settles in nerve cells and may reactivate years later, causing shingles. It’s also called herpes zoster, but it’s not related to the virus that causes genital herpes.
A doctor can usually diagnose shingles just by looking at the rash. If you have shingles symptoms, see your health care provider even if you think you’ve never had chickenpox. Many childhood cases of chickenpox are mild enough to go unnoticed, but the virus can still linger and reactivate. Start treatment as soon as shingles appears to prevent complications.
Shingles blisters will usually scab over in about 7-10 days and then disappear completely in two to four weeks. In most healthy people, the blisters leave no scars, and the pain and itching go away after a few weeks or months.
Risk increases with age. Seniors age 60 and older are 10 times more likely to get shingles than children and young adults. Additional risk factors include:
- Some cancer medicines
- Steroid medicines
- Long-term stress or trauma
- A weak immune system from illnesses such as cancer or HIV
Is Shingles Contagious?
Yes, it is. The rash will not trigger an outbreak of shingles in another person, but it can sometimes cause chickenpox in a child. People who’ve never had chickenpox, or the vaccine to prevent it, can pick up the virus by direct contact with the open sores of shingles. Therefore, it’s best to keep the rash covered and avoid contact with infants and pregnant women.
In some people, some level of pain may continue for months or even years after the rash has healed. This is due to damaged nerves beneath the skin that have not healed. This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia. In severe cases, the pain or itching may be bad enough to cause insomnia, weight loss, or depression.
If the rash appears around the eye or forehead, it can cause eye infections and temporary or permanent loss of vision. If it is in the area of the ear, people may develop hearing or balance problems. In rare cases, the virus attacks the brain or spinal cord.
There is no cure for shingles. However, antiviral medications can slow down an attack. Moreover, prompt treatment will make a case of shingles shorter and milder, while cutting in half the risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia. Doctors recommend starting prescription antiviral drugs at the first sign of a rash. Drug options include acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famcyclovir.
Insofar as creams are concerned, anti-itch lotions, such as calamine, can relieve the pain and itching of the rash. If the pain is severe or the rash is concentrated near an eye or ear, call your doctor right away. Additional medications, such as corticosteroids, may be prescribed to reduce inflammation.
The CDC recommends Senior Citizens ages 60 and older get the Zostavax vaccine. In a large trial, this vaccine cut the risk of developing it in half and reduced the risk of postherpetic neuralgia by 67%. The vaccine won’t treat a current outbreak, but it can prevent future attacks if you have already had the virus. The FDA has approved Zostavax for people as young as age 50, depending on a doctor’s guidance.
Do not get the vaccine if you fall into these categories:
- might be pregnant
- have HIV/AIDS or a weak immune system
- You are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation
- take medications that suppress the immune system
- have a history of leukemia or lymphoma
- You are allergic to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or any ingredient in the vaccine
Shingles is extremely painful. Treatments are available, including a vaccine.
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