Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. This virus is known varicella zoster, and will affect one in three people at some point throughout their lives. Although shingles is also known as herpes zoster, it is not related at all to the sexually transmitted virus that causes herpes.
Who is at risk of contracting shingles?
Because shingles is related to the chicken pox, people who have had it or the vaccine to prevent it are at risk of getting shingles at some point in their lives. This is due to the fact that the chicken pox virus remains dormant in the body after the main infection clears up. Although the reasons behind the virus becoming live again are unknown, what is understood is that older adults are more prone to it. Those who are older than 60 and have had a case of the chicken pox before they were one year old are particularly susceptible to shingles. Also, the risk is higher for those who have weakened immune systems.
Shingles are not contagious, and cannot be spread from one person to another. However, if you have never had chicken pox or its vaccine, you can get the illness from contact with someone with shingles. In some cases, shingles can more than once in your lifetime, although the odds of this happening are rare.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
In some cases, people can experience pain, an itching feeling, or tingling in the affected area of their body before the painful rash that is characteristic of shingles appears. However, in other cases, the first symptom is the rash itself. After appearing, the rash blisters and scabs form after about a week. These scabs fall off 2 to 3 weeks later.
The shingles rash rarely occurs over the entire body, and when it does, it is usually due to a weakened immune system. Shingles usually affects only the right or left side of the face or body, and can look similar to chicken pox.
Besides the rash, other symptoms include swollen glands, headaches, abdominal and joint pain, chills and a fever. If shingles is not treated, it can cause hearing loss and vision problems. Also, if shingles occurs along a facial nerve, this can result in muscle problems, drooping eyelids and a loss of eye motion. Because of this, it is very important to seek treatment for shingles.
How can shingles be treated?
Shingles can be diagnosed by a dermatologist by a simple skin examination. In very rare cases skin samples and testing must be done, but this is not common. Once you have been diagnosed with shingles, you will be prescribed antiviral medications. Usually these medications will reduce the pain that goes along with shingles, but analgesic pain medications can be taken as needed.
In order for the antiviral medications to shorten the span of shingles, it is best if they are started within 72 hours of the first symptoms, preferably before the rash begins to blister. Your dermatologist may instruct you to follow a skin care regimen of calamine lotion, wet compresses or colloidal oatmeal baths in order to relive itching and soothe the affected skin.
Thankfully there is a vaccine for shingles. It is usually recommended for people who are at a high risk of getting shingles, including the elderly.