What Is Shingles?
Shingles is a condition that is caused by a viral infection of the sensory neurons and is characterized by the emergence of a very painful skin rash. Prevalence estimates have indicated that nearly one in every four adults is expected to suffer from symptoms of shingles at some point during their lifetime.
For most healthy adults, an outbreak of shingles generally lasts for a few weeks before resolving. The individual is typically not expected to suffer from any future attacks. Some individuals, however, will suffer from an outbreak of shingles characterized by more severe symptoms that does not resolve for several months. There is some evidence that older individuals, particularly those who are over the age of fifty, are at particular risk given that their immune systems may be more frequently compromised.
When the viral infection underlying shingles first develops, it is typically characterized by fever, dizziness, headache, and light sensitivity. As the infection progresses, patients may experience symptoms of swollen glands, itching, tingling, painful burning, and joint pain, in conjunction with the characteristic painful rash. This rash associated with shingles most commonly emerges on only one side of the body and can even be localized to only one specific area, or spread to areas all over the body. Eventually, the rash will evolve into areas of clustered blisters. These blisters are filled with fluid, which may burst when scratched, leading to scarring in the area.
Shingles infections during adulthood can result in other complications, such as decreased mobility, bacterial infections, ocular problems, post-herpetic neuralgia, and meningitis.
Causes Of Shingles
The virus associated with shingles is the same virus that is responsible for the manifestation of chickenpox during childhood: varicella zoster or herpes zoster. When the herpes zoster virus is contracted during childhood, the symptoms emerge as chickenpox. This initial outbreak from the virus is generally mild and not painful. Following the outbreak of chickenpox, the body then develops immunity to the herpes zoster virus, which significantly decreases the likelihood of the person suffering from another outbreak.
Though the body has developed immunity for the herpes zoster virus, it still remains dormant within the sensory nerves of the spinal dorsal root (i.e., the sensory ganglia or sensory cranial nerves). Therefore, during periods when the immune system is weakened, either due to medication or stress, there is some risk of the virus re-infecting the body, leading to the development of shingles. This shingles outbreak is most often more severe than the original outbreak of chickenpox. Specifically, it is associated with a very painful skin rash that may cause impairments in the individual’s physical, mental, and social functioning.
While it is possible to contract chickenpox by coming into contact with someone who is displaying symptoms, this is not usually the case with shingles. However, individuals who have never contracted the virus, allowing them to develop immunity, are considered to be at risk for becoming infected. Other risk factors for developing a shingles infection include advanced age and compromised immune function owing to medication, high stress levels, or other medical conditions.
Treatments For Shingles
There is no cure for shingles, so treatment for the condition is primarily focused on reducing the severity of symptoms and, ideally, decreasing the longevity of the outbreak. Individuals are encouraged to seek treatment as early as possible to prevent the infection from becoming worse.
For initial outbreaks of shingles, at-home or over-the-counter (OTC) options may be sufficient for reducing symptom severity and preventing the condition from having a detrimental impact on the individual’s daily functioning. Techniques such as taking an oatmeal bath, applying calamine lotion regularly to the rash, or using cool compresses on the area can be effective in decreasing itchiness and soothing irritated skin.
Oral analgesics that can be obtained OTC, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be recommended to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Antiviral or oral steroid medications may also be prescribed by your doctor, depending on the severity of symptoms.
Alternative techniques may be employed, in conjunction with other techniques, to provide additional relief from symptoms. In particular, participating in yoga or regular relaxation practice is shown to reduce the individual’s overall degree of stress contributing to the shingles infection.
Since the development of the chickenpox vaccine, there has been some suggestion that it may also help in preventing the development of shingles. This vaccine is not intended to cure the condition; however, it has been shown to reduce an individual’s risk for manifesting shingles in adulthood, even among populations of older adults.
Shingles is a condition that is characterized by a painful skin rash. The specific mechanism underlying shingles is not completely understood; however, symptoms of the condition are believed to emerge as the result of a viral infection caused by the reinfection of the herpes zoster virus. This virus is associated with chickenpox outbreaks that tend to occur during childhood and are more mild than an outbreak associated with shingles.
There is no cure for the viral infection underlying shingles. The chickenpox vaccine, however, has shown some promise for preventing the development of this condition. The goal of treatment is to reduce the severity of symptoms and decrease the longevity of the infection. In most cases, shingles outbreaks can last several weeks. Individuals are encouraged to seek treatment as soon as possible to prevent the infection from worsening.
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