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HomeHealth A-Z Shingles
Shingles is also known as herpes zoster and is basically a reoccurrence of the varicella zoster virus that is known to cause chicken pox.



Definition of Shingles

Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is an infection of the nerve ends characterized by a painful rash and blisters on the skin, due to a reactivation of the same varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox.

Description of Shingles

Shingles is also known as herpes zoster and is basically a reoccurrence of the varicella zoster virus that is known to cause chicken pox. Shingles is a very painful condition that causes blisters on the area that is affected, in fact the disease is known as St. Anthony’s fire in some areas of the world because many complain that the blisters make the skin feel as though it is on fire. Most of those that develop singles are 60 and older, though there is an incidence of the disease in those that are younger, and those that are immunocompromised are more at risk than others. More than one million people are afflicted with the painful condition each year in the United States alone. Unfortunately, many individuals that suffer from the disease will also develop what is known as postherpetic neuralgia, which is painful and difficult to care for. This is a condition that is a result of shingles and can persist for years after the shingles occurrence.

Luckily, there is a treatment for shingles, but the disease has to be allowed to run its course. The condition is treated with antiviral drugs that do not make the virus go away, but speeds the process of healing and will keep the virus from become inflamed again in the future. There is a new vaccination that has been developed that the majority of children today are taking. This vaccination could potentially do away with shingles as well as shingles in the future.

Causes and Risk Factors of Shingles

The cause of shingles is a reactivation of the herpes zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chicken pox. What many people don’t know is that the virus never goes away, it simply stays dormant. For those that have suppressed immune systems, high amounts of stress, and the elderly are all at a higher risk of suffering a reactivation of the virus. It is difficult to determine who will and who will not suffer from the painful condition, but those that have had chicken pox in the past coupled with a compromised immune system are the most at risk.

Those under undue emotional stress, those taking steroids, individuals that are aging, or those with prolonged illness are generally the ones that will suffer from shingles. Many believe that shingles run in families, though this may have more to do with immune system disorders than a true family history of shingles.

It’s important to note that shingles cannot be passed from one individual to another, but the virus that causes the shingles can be spread to a person who has never had the chicken pox virus if they come in contact with the shingles lesions. While the person could get the virus, they would develop chicken pox, not shingles. When the individual with shingles no longer has any open or wet lesions they are no longer contagious.

Symptoms of Shingles

There are many signs and symptoms associated with shingles. In the very beginning most patients will suffer from headache, flu like symptoms, though generally there will be no fever, as well as a sensitivity to light. It is also common to experience itching, pain, or tingling where the rash will appear. In fact, the pain on the skin is often the first symptom that patients really take notice of. Many describe the pain as stinging, burning, throbbing, numb, or quick stabbing sensations. After the onset of these symptoms one to three different areas of red lesions will appear on the skin that was painful and they will eventually turn into small blisters that are filled with liquid. At this point there is a general ill feeling in the patient as more lesions appear in the affected areas.

Diagnosis of Shingles

The diagnosis of shingles is usually very straight forward and is a diagnosis that can be done simply by viewing the patient and having the patient describe the way their skin feels. One thing that makes it easy for physicians to diagnose the disease is that there are very few medical conditions that present the same way as shingles. What many doctors look for are the typical signs and symptoms and one way that shingles can be set apart from others is that the rash is localized, occurring in only one or two areas on the body. If there is some doubt fluid can be taken from the lesions and tested for the disease to confirm the diagnosis. There are also viral cultures of the skin that can be done, though this is generally not needed.

Treatment of Shingles

Treatment of shingles is usually quite straight forward. Most patients are prescribed an antiviral drug such as Acylcovir which inhibits the replication of the viral DNA, which means the course of the disease may be shortened because new lesions are not able to form. The medication is usually taken for seven to ten days and can be given through and IV if needed. For best results patients should start taking medication within two to three days of the onset of the symptoms or the rash. Unfortunately this medication cannot prevent the postherpetic neuralgia, which is a pain that is a result of the shingles that can last for years and leave people in agony.

Prevention of Shingles

As of yet there is no treatment that can prevent shingles for those that have already had chicken pox. There is some hope that shingles will be eradicated in the future because of the new chicken pox vaccination that is required in many different areas. This vaccination will keep people from getting chicken pox so there will be no way for there to be a reactivation later in life. There is a lot of hope that this vaccination will eventually do away with chicken pox and shingles for good. There is also hope that in the future there will be better and more effective treatments for shingles, but for now the antiviral medications can only stop the painful condition in its tracks, but cannot do away with it for good.

External Resources

CDC - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

NIH Senior Health

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