Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is a viral infection that results in an extremely painful blistering rash which most frequently involves the back and chest but it can also affect other parts of the body such as the neck, the face and the scalp. The blistering rash of shingles is usually asymmetric as it appears on one side of the body and not the other.
Although its pain is quite often unbearably agonizing, shingles is not life-threatening and it rarely results in complications. The one known complication is postherpetic neuralgia and it leaves the area affected by shingles painful for months and even years after the shingles rash had disappeared.
Causes of Shingles
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which belongs to the herpes virus group and it is the same virus that causes chickenpox. The viruses of this grouping become dormant after symptoms of a primary infection subside and may be re-awakened many years later and cause another infection.
Adult individuals who have had chickenpox in their youth may develop shingles if their immune systems had failed to completely destroy the varicella-zoster virus when it first attacked. This virus then goes into hiding within the nervous system and when it is triggered into renewed activity it travels through the nerve pathways to the skin — thus, shingles can develop.
The varicella-zoster virus can be easily contracted by any individual who comes in direct contact with open sores of the shingles rash. If this is the individual’s first exposure to the virus, chickenpox will develop rather than shingles. If the same individual had already had chickenpox, then the varicella-zoster virus will not be contract again.
As shingles is most commonly found in elderly patients and in those with weakened immune systems due to other medical conditions of drugs, it is suspected that the varicella-zoster virus becomes reactivated when the natural protective mechanism of the immune system is ineffective.
Signs and Symptoms of Shingles
Sometimes, pain is the only sign of shingles. Such cases make diagnosing shingles very difficult because they may resemble countless other disorders, and thus treatments are delayed unnecessarily.
More typically, however, the pain is merely the first noted symptom which is soon followed by other symptoms such as sensations of burning, tingling, numbness and excessive sensitivity to touch; a bright red rash that ultimately turns to fluid-filled blisters that progressively become darker as they fill with blood and then break to become crusted; itching, fever and chills, headaches as well as stomach pains, abdominal cramping and general discomfort.
Although they are not foolproof or infallible, vaccinations [the chickenpox vaccine (varicella) and the shingles vaccine (varicella-zoster)] can greatly reduce the risk of developing shingles. Furthermore, beginning treatments at the earliest stages of its development will shorten the duration of shingles episodes and also prevent them from becoming too excruciating.
Drugs which are usually prescribed for the treatment of shingles are large doses of antiviral medications to decrease the duration and severity of the malady, anti-inflammatory drugs or steroids to reduce inflammation as well as strong pain relievers. Topical ointments that contain pain relieving medications are often added to the oral treatments. As the pain and discomfort of shingles can be difficult to bear, antidepressants are often likewise prescribed.
Getting plenty of rest, passing up exhausting pursuits and avoiding stress whenever possible can prove to be tremendously helpful to the healing process of shingles.