Shingles is a painful viral skin condition which is the result of a previous chickenpox infection (varicella-zoster virus). It is most often seen in those over the age of 60, but younger adults under extensive amounts of stress, and the immunocompromised can all get shingles. Shingles can appear on any area of the body, but for most patients initial symptoms begin on one side of the trunk.
The rash is extremely painful and resembles a cluster of blisters or scab. The first symptoms of shingles are usually a tingling sensation and pain, not the vesicular rash most people think of. When the rash does appear, the pain typically increases and remains for two to three weeks.
Is It Contagious?
Shingles is not contagious to those who have had the chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. For those who have never had chickenpox or the vaccine, exposure to shingles may result in chickenpox. This is because shingles and chickenpox are both caused by the varicella-zoster virus; shingles cannot occur without a previous encounter with the varicella-zoster virus.
People suffering from shingles should not go to work or to public places to avoid infecting others, especially pregnant or nursing women; taking time off is also essential to recovery. As with all viral infections, shingles can cause fatigue and malaise in addition to fever and swollen lymph nodes. Resting, taking prescribed medications, and applying cool compresses will all help to ease the pain and speed the healing process.
Since shingles is a viral infection, typically treatment is mostly supportive. However, if caught within 72 hours of initial symptoms shingles can be treated with an antiviral. Use of an antiviral can reduce the length and severity of infection as well as prevent any future complications. After 72 hours, the use of an antiviral is less effective and physicians may or may not prescribe this medication.
Supportive treatments include oral and topical steroids to reduce inflammation and medication to help ease the pain.
Infection always has the possibility of causing permanent damage because pathogens are not meant to inhabit the human body. Shingles usually heals completely and leaves no sign of infection after approximately three weeks. However, some people do experience long term effects such as postherpetic neuropathy or Ramsey Hunt syndrome.
Postherpetic neuralgia is lingering pain in the once affected area. The pain can last for months to years and unfortunately has no cure. Though fairly rare, it most often occurs in patients over the age of 60 and patients who had shingles on their head/neck/face. To reduce the risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia, it is important to see a physician within 72 hours of noticing a rash.
Ramsey Hunt syndrome occurs when shingles affects the ear area. It is believed that the herpes zoster virus infects the facial nerve near the ear causing swelling and pain. Patients that have Ramsey Hunt syndrome may experience vertigo due to inner ear involvement the sensation of spinning could result in nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms include hearing loss, facial paralysis, and difficult closing one eye. Strong steroids will help with these side-effects and when treated early will most-likely completely resolve over time.
See a Physician
Shingles (herpes zoster) is best treated within 72 hours of symptom onset. Being over the age of 60 or being under a lot of stress are both risk factors for shingles and any painful rashes should be taken seriously. See a dermatologist or general practitioner if shingles is suspected.
To prevent the pain of shingles, ask a doctor about getting the shingles vaccination. Individuals over the age of 50 can prevent shingles by getting a vaccination called Zostavax. Younger patients worried about shingles can also receive the vaccination if their physician approves.