Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a recurrence of a past virus infection that leads to a rash which is painful and blisters up. It appears on a specific area of the skin and is caused by the chickenpox virus.
This viral infection can be very uncomfortable and make you feel extremely sick.
It is not usually life threatening and if caught early enough chances are no other complications will arise.
If not treated early there is a chance it can develop into postherpectic neuralgia. The biggest risk groups are older people and those with compromised immune systems.
Symptoms of Shingles
There are many symptoms to be on the lookout for:
- Feeling slightly unwell with pain and tenderness prior to the appearance of the rash
- Pain, burning, tingling, itching numbness or extreme sensitivity in a certain part of the body (always affects one side of the body)
- A red rash which quickly develops into blisters
- Upset stomach
It commonly affects areas around the head, abdomen, arms/legs or on one side of the chest. It can also appear on areas surrounding the eyes or even in the eye area itself. If it occurs near the eyes it can be potentially serious.
What Causes Shingles?
The only way to get shingles is to have had chickenpox in the past. Once you have had chickenpox the virus goes into a sort of hibernation but stays in the nervous system waiting to be awakened. This virus is in the same group that causes cold sores and genital herpes.
Shingles appears when the chickenpox virus wakes up from it’s deep sleep and travels up a nerve root toward the skin. This is why it is so localized to one specific area of the body. Most times an episode of shingles is due a weakened immune system or stress.
Physical contact with those who never had chickenpox, have weak immune systems, newborn babies or pregnant women should be avoided.
When you go to the doctor they will take a close look at the pattern of the rash, where it is located and what the blisters look like before making a diagnosis. If it is close to the eyes the cornea can become infected and requires prompt action to avoid more serious problems.
It is very important that you see a doctor right away because shingles can also lead to serious problems with the brain. Encephalitis occurs when the brain swells up out of control. Other neurological problems have also been known to occur. There have even been cases where sufferers have become permanently blind as a result of shingles.
Shingles is best treated immediately to alleviate the pain and reduce the risk of other complications. Prescription medications that can provide relief include oral antiviral medications.
Corticosteroids may also be prescribed to reduce swelling and pain associated with shingles. In addition, painkillers, antidepressants as well as anticonvulsants may also be prescribed to help treat shingles. Topical ointments such as calamine lotion can soothe the affected area.
There are certain vaccines available to prevent chickenpox as well as shingles. The varicella virus vaccine is a childhood immunization administered between 12 and 18 months.
It is also recommended for older children and adults who have never had chickenpox. If you still contract chickenpox after receiving the vaccination it is generally less severe.
A vaccine called Zostavax is available to help prevent shingles in adults over 60 years and older, and has dramatically reduced the risk of developing this condition in susceptible individuals.
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