Understanding Shingles: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments
17 January, 2023 by Dr. All
Millions of people globally suffer from Shingles, a painful viral rash caused by the reactivation of the Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) – the same contagious virus that first causes chickenpox.
The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is a member of the herpes virus family. Because of this, shingles are sometimes referred to as Herpes Zoster. However, the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles is different from other more well-known types that cause cold sores or genital herpes, which is a sexually-transmitted disease.
Shingles can occur anywhere on the body, usually in the form of a single, one-sided stripe of blisters. These blisters may become infected, cause scars, and in rare cases, be fatal.
If one has had chickenpox before, the virus remains dormant in the body for life, typically residing in a nerve even upon recovery from the initial chickenpox. In times of lowered immunity, this opportunistic virus reactivates and spreads to the skin along the nerve it resides in, resulting in shingles. However, a person who had chickenpox before may not always develop shingles.
It is uncertain what causes shingles, but it tends to be reactivated when our immune system is compromised or reduced. This could be a result of ageing, medications, illness, or lifestyle such as stress or insufficient rest.
The most common symptom of shingles is a linear, one-sided skin rash, which most often begins as grape-like clusters of painful blisters. It usually begins initially as only a small, painful area which develops blisters and tends to extend, peaking on the 3rd day. Most people who get shingles will have mild or moderate nerve pain that may last for days to a few weeks.
The symptoms may include:
- Pain or discomfort
- Burning or tingling sensation
- Sensitivity to touch
- A red rash that appears a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break and crust
In some cases, however, the illness can be more severe with other symptoms such as fever, headaches, joint pains, fatigue, skin infections, or painful rashes lasting months. Other complications, depending on the location of affected nerve, include eye involvement or hearing loss.
Antiviral medicines such as acyclovir tablets and creams are used to treat shingles, minimising the duration and severity of the infection. Oral medication is the most effective if it is taken early, immediately after the appearance of the skin rash, prior to the peak of illness. Analgesia can also alleviate the pain caused by shingles. Cold compresses or calamine lotion may help to relieve the skin itch or burning sensation.
Shingles are hardly life-threatening, but the pain experienced can be severe. Vaccines can reduce the chance of getting shingles. Early prevention can minimise the duration of shingles and reduce the likelihood of complications such as postherpetic neuralgia – a painful ailment that continues to hurt long after the blisters have healed.
If you think you may have shingles, seek medical attention right away, especially if any of the following applies:
- Rash and pain in the eye – this infection could result in serious eye damage if left untreated
- Facial paralysis or hearing loss
- If you are above 50 years of age – the risk of complications increases with age
- You suffer from a weak immune system such as cancer, experience red flags or have persistent symptoms
- The rash is widespread and painful