What is shingles? In layman’s terms, this is the same microorganism that is responsible for chicken pox. Doctors often refer to the virus as varicella-zoster. Any individual who has had chicken pox may experience shingles at some time in their lifetime, if the varicella-zoster virus becomes productive. For many, the shingles virus may remain dormant in the body for years, until it suddenly erupts into a painful, blistering rash that requires treatment. Some individuals will experience shingles more than once during the course of their lives, although most affected will only develop shingles one time.
Is Shingles a Life-Threatening Infection?
For most healthy adults, shingles is not a critical disease. However, if one’s immune system is compromised or if the person has existing health problems, serious complications may arise. In any case, shingles often warrants medical attention, which is why most doctors advise treatment.
What Are Common Symptoms of Shingles?
Soon after the varicella-zoster virus reactivates within the body’s tissues, the individual may begin to feel ill. Symptoms such as headache, chills, and body aches are common. Patients with shingles often develop a blotchy rash, typically on one side of their body, and this is the differentiating factor between varicella-zoster and other viruses, such as the common cold or influenza.
It’s common to experience pain, burning, and tingling in the area of the rash, as shingles often affects the nerves inside skin tissue. Once the rash forms blisters, these will typically ooze and erupt after a short while, then begin to clear after a week or two. The rash may remain for a week or two longer, however. It should be noted that individuals who experience blisters or a rash near the eyes should seek immediate treatment to prevent serious complications involving vision.
How is Shingles Best Treated?
Because the shingles virus may be mistaken for other skin infections or for poison ivy, it’s a good idea to get a professional diagnosis and medical treatment. After diagnosing shingles, doctors often prescribe an antiviral drug as treatment. Some of the commonly prescribed medications include Acyclovir and Famciclovir. These drugs are almost always prescribed for elderly patients or those with existing medical conditions such as diabetes, respiratory problems, or heart-related issues.
Patients experiencing pain and itchiness may use Capsaicin, purchased over the counter at most pharmacies or by prescription. When pain is severe, numbing the affected area may help. Numbing agents in a cream or gel form often are given by prescription. An injection of a corticosteroid, which is administered directly into the affected area of the skin, may reduce pain and inflammation. This is typically advised for more severe cases of burning pain.
Doctors often recommend taking a cool bath to relieve the discomfort associated with shingles. Oatmeal baths may provide soothing itch relief as well. Additionally, a cold compress applied to the affected area may help.
Can Shingles Be Prevented?
Although there is no known cure for shingles and no way to ensure the virus won’t reactivate, there is a way to reduce the risk of developing the infection. Receiving a shingles vaccination is an important measure to take, especially for those with weakened immune systems, and for the elderly. The vaccine may not prevent the disease from occurring, but it may help prevent complications.