Shingles is a viral infection that appears as a single stripe of blisters on the left or right side of your torso with shooting pain. Shingles is not a serious condition but can be very painful. Shingles is caused by a virus called varicella-zoster. It is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have had chickenpox, the same virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. The virus may reactivate as shingles years later.
What is Shingles?
Shingles appear as a strip of blisters on one side of your body. Though it is not a life-threatening condition, the pain can get intense. If diagnosed early, the treatment can reduce the chances of further complications and shorten the infection.
The Varicella-zoster virus belongs to the group of viruses known as herpes viruses. It also includes the viruses that cause genital herpes or cold sores. Because of this, shingles are also called herpes zoster. However, the virus that causes shingles and chickenpox is not the same virus that is responsible for cold sores or genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection.
What are the noticeable symptoms of Shingles?
Shingles appears only on one side of the body. You may notice the following symptoms:
- Sensitivity to touch
- Pain in a particular area
- The appearance of a red rash a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled, red blisters
Some lesser common symptoms include:
Pain is one of the first symptoms of Shingles. In some cases, people develop Shingles without ever developing the rash. In rare cases, Shingles appear around one side of the face, neck, or eye.
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What causes Shingles?
The varicella-zoster virus causes shingles. Anyone who has had chickenpox may develop shingles in the future. But not everyone who has had chickenpox will develop shingles.
Once you recover from chickenpox, the virus stays inactive in your body. It may reactivate and travel along with the nerve tissue under your skin – causing shingles.
There is no scientific reason for the activation of the virus yet. But it may be because of the weak immunity. Shingles are found more commonly in older people or people with a weak immune system.
Is Shingles contagious?
A person suffering from shingles can pass on the virus to people who have never had chickenpox in their lives. This transmission occurs through direct contact of the rash. But once infected, the person will get chickenpox, not shingles.
Until your shingles heals completely, you should avoid direct contact with anyone who has never had chickenpox before, pregnant women, newborns, and people with a weak immune system.
Risk factors of Shingles
If you have had chickenpox earlier in your life, you are at an increased risk of developing shingles. Some of the other risk factors include:
The risks increase with age. Shingles are common in people above the age of 50 years.
- Weak immune system
If you have certain diseases such as cancer that make your immune system weak, you are at a higher risk of developing shingles.
- Undergoing cancer treatments
Cancer treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy may lower your resistance to diseases and may cause shingles.
Prolonged use of certain steroids such as prednisone can increase your risk of developing shingles.
What complications can arise if Shingles are left untreated?
Even though shingles are not life-threatening, they are very painful, which is why it is essential to get the condition treated before it worsens. Here are the complications that can arise from untreated shingles:
- Postherpetic neuralgia
In some people, even after the blisters have cleared, the pain continues for a long time. This condition is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It usually occurs when damaged nerve fibers send false messages of pain from your skin to the brain.
- Neurological problems
Depending on the nerves affected, shingles may cause inflammation in the brain, balance or hearing problems, or facial paralysis.
- Vision loss
Shingles that develop around the eye are known as ophthalmic shingles and may cause eye infection that could result in vision loss.
- Skin infections
If shingles are left untreated, bacterial infections may develop.
How is Shingles diagnosed?
Shingles are usually diagnosed by the pain, rash, and blisters on your body. Your doctor may also take a sample of the blisters for examinations in the laboratory.
How is Shingles treated?
As there is no cure for Shingles yet, your doctor will prescribe you antiviral drugs to speed up the recovery process and reduce complications. These medications include:
For the intense pain, your doctor may also prescribe:
- Numbing agents such as lidocaine
- Capsaicin topical patch
- Anticonvulsants such as gabapentin
- Medications containing narcotics such as codeine
- Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline
- An injection of corticosteroids and local anesthetics
Shingles last for about two to six weeks. Most people get it only once, but getting it two or more times is a possibility.
What are the preventive measures for Shingles?
The chickenpox vaccine – varicella – and the shingles vaccine – varicella-zoster – may help prevent shingles.
- Chickenpox vaccine
The varicella vaccine, known as Varivax, may help you prevent chickenpox, which will prevent the development of shingles in the future. Adults who have never had chickenpox can also take this vaccine.
Though the vaccine won’t guarantee you that you will never get chickenpox or shingles, it can reduce your risk of developing it.
- Shingles vaccine
There are two options available for the shingles vaccine – Zostavax and Shingrix.
Zostavax was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006. It protects against shingles for almost five years. It is a live vaccine given as a single injection in the upper arm.
Shingrix is the preferred alternative to Zostavax. It was approved by the FDA in 2017. Several studies have shown that Shingrix protects against shingles for more than five years. It is a nonliving vaccine developed with a virus component. It is given in two doses, with a gap of two to six months between them.
Zostavax is not recommended for people below the age of 60 years, whereas Shingrix can be given to people above the age of 50 years. People who have had Zostavax earlier can also receive Shringix again.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. What do shingles look like when they first start?
Early symptoms of shingles include pain and a burning sensation. A few days later, you may start noticing rashes and blisters on one side of your body.
2. Does a shingles rash go away on its own?
In most cases, shingles go away. But it is better to consult a doctor so he/she can devise a proper treatment plan for you. A doctor will also be able to tell you if you will need antiviral medications.
3. What can be mistaken for shingles?
Shingles can sometimes be mistaken for other skin conditions such as hives, eczema, or psoriasis. If you suspect you have shingles, it is better to consult a doctor to lessen further complications.
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