What Is Shingles?
Shingles is a viral condition that affects nerves and is usually diagnosed after its physical symptoms appear: an unpleasant rash with painful blisters frequently appearing on the skin. Once the rash and blisters have gone, many people still endure intense pain, that can persist for months or years.
Early identification and treatment of shingles can minimize the initial pain and may reduce the chance of persistent, recurring pain.
Shingles may also be referred to as Herpes zoster, or Zoster.
What Causes Shingles?
Shingles is caused by the virus varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that gives us chickenpox as children. Once we recuperate from chickenpox, the virus goes dormant and retreats within nerve cells in the bodies, but doesn’t leave. Seemingly without reason, the virus can become active again and, in adults especially older people, can result in shingles.
In most cases, adults can have the shingle producing VZV virus within their body and won’t get shingles. But, one-fifth of adults who had chickenpox as children will acquire shingles when they are older.
With shingles, the blisters are usually grouped in a certain region of the body, as opposed to being dispersed over the body such as chickenpox. In fact, it is common for the shingles blisters to be visible on one side of the face or body, similar to symptoms of an allergic reaction where something physically touches the body.
The shingles rash is the result of the virus becoming active and moving along the path of a nerve outward toward the skin. The term “shingles” originates from the Latin expression for belt, due to the shape of the rash that is caused when the virus reaches the skin. The rash will oftentimes resemble a belt as it covers one side of the face or body.
Shingles, including the pain and the rash are not indicative of another disease like tuberculosis or cancer. It is a viral disease that is usually not fatal.
Shingles are contagious
The virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles is easily passed from person to person, and therefore both chickenpox and shingles are highly contagious. But, the virus will only produce chickenpox in children who have not been vaccinated. Even when someone is suffering from shingles and a high risk individual touches the shingles rash, the only disease that may be transmitted is chickenpox. Transmission must occur from touching the rash.
Children with shingles should avoid school and should not mix with other children unless the rash is controlled and adequately covered.
Complications from Shingles
The complications from shingles are more serious than the symptoms themselves:
Persistent pain may occur if medication is not taken immediately and subsequent nerve damage is allowed to happen.
Vision problems have been reported in cases where shingles attack happens near an eye. Permanent loss of vision may result.
Skin infections might result from open cuts and sores that come from the shingles rash.
Nervous system problems can occur when nerves in the face are attacked by the shingles virus, and the virus has a path to the spinal column or brain. In rare cases, permanent paralysis or other nervous system disorders may occur.
Who Can Get Shingles
Shingles in Adults
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the United States, shingles is diagnosed approximately 1 million times every year. Over half of those diagnosed with shingles are over 60 years old, and almost half of the reported problems from shingles occur in elderly people.
The increased risk of contracting Shingles is considered a normal part of aging, but people may have a higher risk exposure if they have a weakened immune system or take certain medications, have a chronic disease like cancer, or infections.
Shingles in Children
Children can get shingles, but only if the child has already had chickenpox. The symptoms of shingles in children are similar to symptoms of shingles in adults, including rash but without the painful itching and burning that adults experience.
Shingles in children under age 10 is very rare, and about 5% of shingles cases in the United States occurs in children aged 15 years or less. Over 75% of cases are diagnosed in adults 45 years of age or older.
Following are the symptoms of shingles rash in children:
- thin band occurring on one side of the face or body
- initial bumps in small groupings that change to blisters and eventually become large patches of dry, crusty skin
- rash is more common on the upper abdomen – chest or back
Children with shingles do not have a high fever, nausea or upset stomach like adults often report.
Treatment of Shingles
While not exactly a means of treatment, the best approach is to avoid situations where the virus can be contracted. Avoid touching the rash and blisters of an infected person.
Treating shingles with medication
Medications to combat the the virus are a common course of treatment. Antiviral drugs and corticosteroids can help reduce pain and swelling in the area of the rash and may help prevent other complications from starting.
Treatment of shingles using medications should begin within 3 days of initial symptoms, notably before the pain and burning from the rash. It is important to start taking medications before the rash transitions to blisters. When the symptoms don’t react to oral medication, it will be necessary to take them intravenously.
Other things to reduce pain near the rash include a cold compress or a bath in soothing lotions (colloidal and calamine lotion). Other ideas include getting plenty of bed rest and keeping the skin near the blister area clean and open to the air. While these actions help to relieve pain from the rash and blisters, they do very little to stop the symptoms.
Treatment by Vaccine
Children who haven’t had chickenpox should get the chickenpox vaccine to prevent contracting the virus. Even older children or young adults should be considered for the chickenpox vaccine. Older adults, typically those over 60, can be vaccinated against the virus with the herpes zoster vaccine, which is very similar to the chickenpox vaccine in that it protects from the same virus.
In all cases, consult with your doctor for the best course of treatment.