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What is Shingles?

Medikoe Health Expert

Medikoe Health Expert

  Koramangala, bengaluru, karnataka, india, Bengaluru     Jul 14, 2019

   5 min     



Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. It occurs due to reactivation of the chickenpox virus in the body, and though it can occur anywhere in the body, it mostly occurs as a single stripe of blisters along the left or the right side of the torso. The virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster) lies inactive in the nerve tissues around the spinal cord and the brain, and when the virus gets reactivated, it causes shingles. Hence, anyone who has recovered from chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles and people who have never been exposed to the chickenpox virus cannot develop the condition.

Symptoms of Shingles

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of shingles include:

  • Pain, numbness, or tingling sensation

  • High sensitivity to touch

  • A red rash that usually develops a few days after the onset of pain

  • Itching in the area

  • Development of fluid-filled blisters

  • The condition is also accompanied by fever in some cases

  • Headache and fatigue can also occur due to shingles

  • Some people also develop photosensitivity (sensitivity to light)

Pain is one of the first signs of shingles, followed by the development of a stripe of fluid-filled blisters. In most cases, these symptoms affect only a small portion of one side of the body.

Causes of Shingles

As already mentioned, the condition is caused due to the reactivation of the chickenpox virus that lies dormant in the nerve tissues of the body. Due to reactivation, the virus travels along the nerve pathways to the skin and produces the symptoms of shingles. However, experts are not yet sure about the exact cause of reactivation of the shingles virus. However, it has been observed that it is more common in people who have compromised immune systems and older people.

Risk factors

Anyone who has ever suffered from chickenpox can contract shingles. Most grown-ups had chickenpox when they were kids or teenagers, before the arrival of the routine childhood vaccination, which now protects against chickenpox.

Factors which can increase your risk of developing shingles include:

  • Being older than 50- Shingles is most prevalent in people older than the age of 50. The risk progresses with age.

  • Taking certain medications- Drugs intended to prevent denial of transplanted organs can raise your risk of shingles — as can prolonged use of steroids, like prednisone.

  • Having certain diseases- Diseases which weaken your immune systems, like cancer and HIV/AIDS, can develop your risk of shingles.

  • Undergoing cancer treatments- Chemotherapy or radiation can reduce your resistance to diseases and may trigger shingles.

Are shingles contagious?

The varicella-zoster virus can be transmitted from a person having shingles to another who is not immune against chickenpox. However, the person to which the virus is transmitted will not develop shingles, but will rather develop chickenpox. The virus can spread through direct contact with sores of the shingles rash and hence, people affected with shingles should avoid direct physical contact with other people, especially those who are not immune against chickenpox and people with a compromised immune system, as chickenpox can lead to serious complications in some cases.

Complications of Shingles

Complications due to shingles can include:

  • Neurological problems- Based on which nerves are affected by shingles, it can cause encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain), balance or hearing problems and facial paralysis.

  • Postherpetic neuralgia- Shingles pain continues for some people long after the blisters have cleared. This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia, and it happens when damaged nerve fibres send exaggerated and confusing messages of pain from your skin to your brain cells.

  • Vision loss- Shingles in or around the eye (ophthalmic shingles) can prompt painful eye infections which may result in permanent vision loss.

  • Skin infections- If shingles blisters are not treated properly, you may develop bacterial skin infections.

Treatment of Shingles

There is no specific treatment available for shingles. However, prescription antiviral drugs are immediately administered once the condition is diagnosed. These drugs alleviate the symptoms and help in preventing complications. Since the condition causes extreme pain to many people, the doctor may prescribe medications like anticonvulsants, antidepressants, numbing agents, injections containing local anaesthetics and corticosteroids, etc. All of these treatment approaches are aimed at reducing the severity of the symptoms and preventing further complications. The condition may last anywhere between two and six weeks and affects most people only once (though it can occur more than one times to the same individual).

Preventing Shingles

Vaccination is the best method to prevent shingles. Two types of vaccines are useful in preventing the condition: the varicella vaccine for chickenpox and the varicella-zoster vaccine for shingles. These vaccines may cause minor side-effects like redness, pain, tenderness, etc. These vaccines do not guarantee prevention but lower the risk of developing the condition and reduce the severity of the condition if it develops at all.

It is important to avoid physical contact with people who are affected by the condition, as the infection can easily spread by touch. People with compromised immune systems, including pregnant women, old people, and infants, should specifically avoid physical contact with an affected person.

Are shingles painful?

Some people with shingles simply undergo mild symptoms, such as itchy skin or tingling. In some cases, however, it can be quite painful. Even a mild breeze can cause immense pain. Some people can also experience severe pain without developing a rash.

The pain due to shingles normally happens in the nerves of the chest or the face, neck, or lower back. To help ease the pain, the doctor may prescribe anti-inflammation, antiviral or other medicines.

When to see a doctor?

Contact the doctor immediately if you suspect shingles, but particularly in the following circumstances.

  • The rash is painful and widespread.

  • The rash and pain occur near an eye. If not treated timely, this infection can lead to permanent vision loss.

  • You or someone in your family has a weak immune system (due to medications, chronic illness or cancer).

  • You are of age 60 or older as it significantly increases the risk of complications.

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Tags:  herpes zoster,Shingles symptoms,Shingles causes,Shingles treatment,Shingles prevention,Shingles, rash, skin infection, blisters, chickenpox, fever, photosensitivity, cancer, chemotherapy, vision loss

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