Herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles, is a painful skin infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After an individual has chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in the body. The virus can be reactivated later in life, causing shingles.
Anyone who has ever had chickenpox can develop shingles at some point in their life. The risk of reactivation increases with age and is higher in those with weakened immune systems (those taking immune-suppressing drugs, people with HIV and certain forms of cancer and those undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments). Usually, the virus only reactivates once in a person's lifetime. Some people however, may have shingles more than once.
Shingles is characterized by localized rash that typically appears only on one side of the face or body. The rash, which usually lasts 2 to 4 weeks, consists of clusters of small, reddish, fluid-filled blisters. Most often, blisters appear on the trunk or along several ribs. In addition to the blisters, shingles causes burning, tingling pain. The pain is felt before the rash appears and is concentrated where the blisters eventually appear. The pain often persists for several weeks or months after the rash has healed. Some individuals experience other symptoms such as fever and headache.
Shingles itself is not contagious. The fluid inside the blisters, however, contains the varicella-zoster virus which is contagious. Anyone who has never had chickenpox and touches the blisters with their hands could contract chickenpox. Handwashing is therefore important and will help prevent virus transmission. Those who have never had chickenpox, women who are pregnant, those with a weakened immune system and newborns must be very careful.
There is a vaccine that reduces the risk of developing shingles. The vaccine can also make the symptoms of shingles milder if they do occur after vaccination. Ask your healthcare provider about this vaccine.
If you think you have shingles, see your doctor as soon as possible. To be effective, treatment must be started early. If treatment is initiated shortly after the rash develops, the duration, severity and pain associated with the infection will be lessened. Antiviral prescription drugs are available to treat shingles. Other medications such as pain relievers and antipruritic (relieve itch) may help alleviate symptoms that accompanies shingles.
Here are few helpful tips to be more comfortable:
- Take baths
- Avoid scented soaps
- Apply cool compresses on the affected area
- Keep the area clean and dry
- Wear loosing fitting clothes
- Avoid scratching to prevent infection and delay healing