What Is Shingles?
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A viral infection of the sensory nerves causes this condition. For most healthy adults, an outbreak generally lasts for a few weeks. Then, it resolves by itself. Most people don’t suffer from any future attacks.
For others, however, the story is much different. These individuals suffer from a severe outbreak. Their symptoms are more severe and typically do not resolve for several months or more. There is some evidence that older individuals, age 60 and older, are at a higher risk for a severe form of this condition. This is most likely due to a more frequently compromised immune system.
When the viral infection first develops, it is typically characterized by:
- A shingles rash
- Light sensitivity
As the infection progresses, you may experience more severe symptoms, such as:
What does a shingles rash feel like?
The characteristic painful rash has a few ways to identify it. This rash:
- Most commonly emerges on only one side of the body
- Can be localized to only one specific area or spread to areas all over the body
- Eventually evolves into areas of clustered blisters
These blisters are filled with fluid. Blisters may burst when scratched, leading to scarring in the area.
An infection can lead to other complications, such as:
- Decreased mobility
- Bacterial infections
- Ocular (or vision) problems
- Chronic nerve pain
- Postherpetic neuralgia
What causes shingles?
Shingles CausesThe childhood virus chickenpox and shingles are related. The virus associated with shingles is the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox during childhood: varicella zoster or herpes zoster virus.
As you remember from childhood, chickenpox is one of those infectious diseases that can be spread by direct contact. 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. This significantly decreases the likelihood of the person suffering from another outbreak.
But, while it is possible to contract chickenpox by coming into direct contact with someone who is displaying symptoms, this is not usually the case with the adult infection.
Instead, even though the body has developed immunity for the herpes zoster virus, it still remains dormant in the body. The virus resides in the sensory nerves of the spinal dorsal root. These are also known as the sensory ganglia or sensory cranial nerves.
During future periods of weakened immunity, either due to medication or stress, there is a risk that the virus can reinfect the body. This new reinfection can lead to the development of shingles.
An outbreak is often much more severe than the original outbreak of chickenpox. Its characteristic nerve pain and painful skin rash can lead to impairments in a person’s physical, mental, and social functioning.
Who is at risk?
Individuals who have never contracted the chickenpox virus, allowing them to develop immunity, are still considered to be at risk for becoming infected with this condition.
Other risk factors for developing an infection include:
- Advanced age
- Compromised immune function from medication, high stress levels, or other medical conditions
Shingles Treatments And PreventionThere is no cure for this condition. Instead, your doctor will focus their treatment on reducing the severity of your symptoms. Ideally, your doctor will attempt to shorten the length of your outbreak. A shorter outbreak period can help reduce effects later. Because of that, if you think you have symptoms, you should talk to a doctor immediately. Seek treatment as early as possible to prevent the infection from becoming worse.
For initial outbreaks of this condition, at-home or over-the-counter (OTC) options can help reduce your symptoms. They also allow you to continue on with your daily activities. You’ll remember many of these from childhood, such as:
- Taking an oatmeal bath
- Applying calamine lotion regularly to the shingles rash
- Using cool compresses on the area
These can help reduce your itching and soothe irritated skin, so there’s less chance of scarring later on.
Beyond these at-home treatments, you can also use medications. Oral over-the-counter analgesics such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce inflammation and relieve your pain. If you’re suffering from severe symptoms, your doctor can also prescribe antiviral or oral steroid medications.
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 can help you reduce your overall degree of stress.
Is There A Shingles Vaccine?Since the development of the chickenpox vaccine, or varicella vaccine, there has been some suggestion that it may also reduce the risk of developing shingles. This chickenpox vaccine can reduce an person’s risk for manifesting shingles in adulthood, even among populations of older adults.
Beyond that, a shingles vaccine has been developed. Two, in fact. In 2006, Shingrix was approved. In 2017, a live vaccination, Zostavax was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. If you’re over the age of 50, you can take either of these to prevent this condition and its related complications. Because of risk factors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention typically advise people to wait until they’re 60 to receive Zostavax. You can take either whether you’ve already had an infection or not.
Zostavax is a single injection given in the upper arm. Shingrix is given in two doses, with a few months between injections. There are some potential mild side effects from both, such as redness or tenderness at the injection site. However, both may provide protection from shingles for five years. That number may even be higher for Shingrix.
While a shingles vaccine is an important tool in prevention, especially in those most at-risk, there are some cautions. It greatly reduces your chances of contracting this condition but doesn’t prevent it in all cases. Likewise, some who are already have compromised immune systems shouldn’t receive the vaccine. Mayo Clinic has more information about contraindications.
ConclusionIf you’re suffering from a painful skin rash and are over the age of 50, you may have shingles. What causes this condition is not completely understood; however, many believe that a re-infection of the same childhood chickenpox virus is to blame. Chickenpox, however, is much more mild than a shingles outbreak. Shingles can lead to severe itching, nerve pain, and joint pain. If left untreated, it can cause long-term, chronic symptoms.
There is no cure for the viral infection underlying this condition, but there are vaccines to help prevent your chances of catching it. If you do have shingles, the goal of treatment is to reduce the severity of your symptoms and decrease the longevity of the infection. In most cases, outbreaks can last several weeks. If you believe you have shingles, seek treatment as soon as possible to prevent the infection from worsening.
If you’re already suffering from long-term complications of this condition, such as postherpetic neuralgia, click the button below to find a trained pain specialist in your area who can help.
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