What is shingles?
Shingles (also known as herpes zoster, or simply zoster) is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chicken pox. The infection typically lasts approximately two to six weeks. Shingles can present anywhere on the body, however it most often shows as a single strip of blisters on either the left or right side of your torso. Shingles is not life-threatening, however it is known to be a very painful infection. There are an estimated one million cases in the United States every year. While most people only develop shingles once in their lifetime (similar to chicken pox), some patients may experience a recurrence of this infection. Elderly patients and patients with weak or compromised immune systems are most at risk of developing a shingles infection.
Symptoms of shingles
The shingles rash is usually preceded by sensations of burning, itching or tingling. These sensations usually occur two to three days before the rash becomes apparent. The pain level can range from person to person. Some patients experience the singles pain, but never develop the rash. During the infection, people may experience:
- Pain, burning, numbness and/or tingling
- Sensitivity to touch
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
- Sensitivity to light (photosensitivity)
- Flu-like symptoms such as dizziness, weakness and light-headedness
Shingles can only occur in individuals who have previously been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus. After you have initially been exposed, the virus lays dormant in the nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. After an undetermined amount of time (normally several decades), the virus can be re-activated as shingles. You can only pass shingles on to another person if that person has been previously exposed to the varicella-zoster virus as well. Individuals who have not been previously exposed will not develop shingles from contact with an infected patient. A variety of factors can re-activate the varicella-zoster virus. These factors include:
- Certain medications such as immunosuppressants or steroids
- Weakened immune system
- Autoimmune diseases
- Emotional stress
- Psychological stress
Treatments for shingles
Once you are diagnosed, common treatments for shingles includes anti-viral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famcyclovir (Famvir). These medications help to shorten the course of the infection and decrease the severity of the symptoms. These medications are most effective when started within 72 hours of the rash’s first appearance.
Pain medication may also be used to help the patient deal with the pain of the virus. Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) may be all that is needed to help deal with the pain. In more severe cases, stronger pain medications such as opioids may be needed until the infection has been cleared up. Over-the-counter anti-histamines such as diphenhydramine (Benedryl) may assist in managing any itching sensations that may accompany shingles.
Additionally, there are vaccines to help prevent both chickenpox and shingles. The vaccine for chicken pox is called he varicella vaccine (Varivax) and is a routine vaccination for children. The varicella-zoster vaccine (Zostavax) is recommended for older adults aged 60 years and older.