Shingles – Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Shingles and chickenpox are inextricably linked. What does it mean? It means that every single person that develops shingles, had first developed chickenpox at some point in their life.

At first glance, shingles may seem very innocuous to other persons, but the individual suffering from it knows the discomfort it can bring.

Regardless, shingles usually doesn’t need much intervention as it resolves on its own, and cannot be cured. The best approach is to manage discomfort and make it as painless as possible.

Symptoms of Shingles

The development of shingles may not alarm the individual at first, until other symptoms start to manifest. These may include:

  • Pain – one of the most significant symptoms associated with a shingles rash is severe pain. Some people may describe it as being a sharp stabbing pain, while others may describe it as having a burning sensation, or even a pulse similar to an abscess. The pain may be constant, or may occur in sharp, occasional bursts. Regardless, this pain has a nervous component to it that makes topical intervention practically useless
  • Rash – rashes associated with shingles may bear a slight resemblance to chickenpox, except that while chickenpox is diverse and affects the entire body, the rash associated with shingles is usually reserved to one area of skin, and typically affecting just one side of the body. At First, the rash may just feel tingly, but can then develop itchiness, turning to blisters which appear raw and inflamed, may ooze, but then subsequently form crusty scabs, dry up and fall off.
  • Other symptoms – a shingles rash may occur with other symptoms such as fever, frequent headaches, lethargy or nausea in some persons.

Causes of Shingles

Shingles and chickenpox share the same cause – a virus by the name of varicella-zoster. After a person develops chickenpox in their lifetime, the virus usually goes into remission, normally residing around an individual’s spinal cord or brain.

Here, the virus lies dormant for a number of years, where it may or may not become active again. It is important to note that not everyone who has had chickenpox in their lifetime will go one to experience shingles, as to date no positive reason why some people develop shingles and others do not have not been established.

However, it is believed that the overall immune state of an individual plays a significant role, as there is a correlation between the frequency of shingles development and older individuals, who typically have lowered states of immunity.

Interestingly, the virus that causes shingles is contagious to persons who have never experienced chickenpox in their life, as it is the same one responsible for both. Thus, it is a good idea to avoid coming into direct contact with a person who has an active shingles rash, especially if inflamed and oozing, as you stand to develop chickenpox from it (if you have never before).

You cannot directly develop shingles without first experiencing chickenpox.

Risk Factors For Shingles

Even though there is no direct way to determine who will develop shingles and who would not, possessing several risk factors may increase the likelihood of you experiencing it in your lifetime. These include:

  • Age – being over the age of 50 appears to have a strong correlation with shingles, as its likelihood of recurring increases with advancing age. It is estimated that 50% of persons that had chickenpox will experience shingles if they are over the age of 80.
  • Use of certain medications – these primarily include medications that take a toll on your immune system, decreasing your defenses. Such medications include long-term use of corticosteroids, chemotherapy which is known to kill both cancerous and healthy cells, and using specific medication that helps to prevent organ rejection in persons who have received an organ transplant.
  • Medical conditions – in a similar vein, conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS suppress the immune system and make it more likely that the varicella-zoster virus can reemerge and cause shingles.

Treatment of Shingles

It is important to note that treatment for shingles does not eradicate the virus, as there is currently no way of achieving such. However, what treatment does is help to decrease the severity of symptoms or discomfort you feel. Typical approaches include:

  • Antiviral medication – usually, before a shingles rash becomes visible, a person may feel a strange nerve tingling in one specific area of the body. This is usually one of the warning signs that a shingles rash is imminent. At this point in time, consulting your physician and having him prescribe specific antiviral medications can help decrease the viral load that cause the rash, and subsequently result in milder symptoms. The rash will still occur, along with associated symptoms but will be generally milder than if left unchecked.
  • Calamine lotion – calamine lotion can be applied topically to ease itching, along with corticosteroid creams, though fast drying preparations are preferred as they do not form a barrier on the skin which can delay healing.
  • Antihistamines – can help to relieve itching temporarily, and can help promote sleep at night which would otherwise be interrupted by nerve pain.
  • Use of non-adherent bandages is also allowed if it would help prevent painful contact with clothing, or desist you from itching.
  • Painkillers – not always necessary, but may help to alleviate discomfort felt to some extent.
  • Gabapentin/pregabalin – these are medications that interact with nerves and may help prevent tingling or neuralgia experienced.

Prevention of Shingles

In the past, there was no way to prevent shingles or determine if it would occur someone who previously had developed chickenpox. However, today there is a vaccine for chickenpox which is administered in childhood, helping to prevent both infections.

There is also a shingles vaccine that can be administered to adults 60 years and older, though this does not impart absolute immunity from shingles as the virus is already present in that individual’s body.

Shingles Prognosis

In most cases, given that the person has a moderately fair immune system, shingles rashes resolve within 2 to 4 weeks, with young adults often making a complete recovery.

Older individuals that develop shingles also recover within a similar time frame, but are prone to experiencing mild flare-ups of nerve pain at the site of the former shingles rash.

Only about 4% of people that develop shingles require hospitalization owing to severe complications (there are a number of rare complications that can accompany shingles), but these are individuals that usually have compromised immune systems.

Summary – Shingles

Since shingles is most likely to occur in older individuals, it is important to maintain a healthy immune system by consuming a balanced diet and partaking in exercise. Doing so will help you to minimize the severity of the shingles rash and associated symptoms.

Best of all, children born this generation have the privilege of never developing a chickenpox infection owing to availability of a vaccine to prevent the same. This, in turn should mean that two generations down the line chickenpox and shingles should be a thing of the past

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