Shingles

Important Health Facts About Shingles

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Health Check Certified by Dr. Gerald Morris

You’ve heard people talk about shingles, and how painful it can be. But what is it? It’s caused by the same virus as chickenpox – so if you’ve gone through that already, you’re probably at risk of developing shingles.

The painful, blistering rash can be somewhat mild for some but excruciating for others, which is why it should be taken seriously. Let’s look at 13 facts about shingles, including how to prevent it…

1. What is Shingles?

Shingles is a “distinctive, painful rash” in adults that can strike those who have the virus from chicken pox laying dormant in their system, says WebMD. While the virus can be silent for years, in others it “wakes up and travels along nerve fibers to the skin,” it adds.

The most common location for shingles to develop is around the side of the waist, but it can also be highly visible and almost impossible to hide – on 1-side of the forehead or around 1-eye, adds the source.

2. More Than a Feeling

The severity of symptoms can vary from patient to patient, but shingles is never a pleasant experience. The Mayo Clinic says shingles will usually only affect 1-side of the body, and is contained to a small area – but will bring big pain.

Telltale signs include pain, burning, and numbness or tingling in the affected area, says the source. The area will be very sensitive to touch, and the rash will typically show up a few days after the pain begins, it adds. There will also be itchiness and fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over, explains the clinic. Some patients will also experience fever, headache, fatigue and even sensitivity to light.

3. What’s the Culprit?

We’ve already mentioned the chicken pox virus being responsible for shingles – but to get more specific, it’s the varicella zoster virus (VZV), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You’ll also hear the virus referred to as herpes zoster by some sources, but to be clear, shingles is not the sexually transmitted disease that herpes is often associated with.

4. It’s Contagious – Sort Of

Shingles itself as a condition is not contagious, but the zoster virus is. What this means, according to MedicineNet.com, is that if you’ve never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, you can end up getting chickenpox from someone who has shingles if you come into direct contact with the blister fluid. You can’t directly pass shingles from one person to another.

The source says pregnant women in particular should avoid anyone who has visible signs of shingles – it is not transmitted through coughing or sneezing, and is not contagious before the blisters appear, adds the source. When the blisters have dried over, the contagious period is generally considered to be over.

5. When to Get Medical Intervention

EMedicineHealth.com says you should seek out the assistance of a medical professional as soon as possible after the painful rash develops on one side of your body. It adds that antiviral medications are only effective up to 72-hours after the rash appears.

If the rash is on your face, you should consult a doctor immediately as the virus could spread to your eye and cause eye damage and vision loss, adds the source. A follow-up with an ophthalmologist is also recommended.

6. Pinpointing the Problem

There are a few ways a doctor can diagnose shingles and separate it from another problem causing a rash, notes Livestrong.com. It says one of the most common diagnosis methods is by simply assessing the symptoms.

However, a doctor may also resort to a blood test to detect increased white blood cells, as well as using a blood test to identify antibodies associated with the herpes zoster virus, it adds. In some cases of uncertainty, a tissue sample may be taken to look at the cells under a microscope, it adds.

7. Worse Case Scenarios

We’ve already mentioned the possible eye damage from a shingles rash on the face, but there are other possible complications, notes the NSH in the UK. One is Postherpetic neuralgia, which the source describes as “severe nerve pain (neuralgia) and intense itching that persists after the rash and any other symptoms of shingles have gone.”

There’s also the Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can cause hearing loss and dizziness – and even facial paralysis – to those with facial nerves affected by the virus. Other complications include rash infections, scarring or loss of skin pigment in the affected area, as well as inflammation of the lungs, liver, brain or spinal cord. These complications are more likely if you already have a weakened immune system, adds the NHS.

8. Who is at Risk?

Healthline.com reminds us that anyone who has had chickenpox can later develop shingles. However, while you can get shingles at any age, it’s most commonly associated with people in their 60’s and 70’s, it adds.

If there are factors that have weakened your immune system, you’re more likely to develop shingles from the reactivated virus, adds the source. “It’s not unusual to get shingles when you’re already sick or stressed,” it notes.

9. Vaccines and Other Prevention Methods

Fortunately, there’s a vaccine available that will reduce the chance of developing shingles if you’ve already had chickenpox. It’s called the Zostavax vaccine, and it’s targeted at people aged 60-and older.

Meanwhile, MedicinePlus.gov says if you have shingles, you can help prevent the spread of it by covering the rash and avoiding scratching it. You should also wash your hands frequently to be sure, it adds.

10. Will Shingles Disappear on Its Own?

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says that most cases of shingles will last 3 to 5-weeks, and will follow a pattern starting with the pain, then the rash, and then the blistering and subsequent crusting over.

It takes about 10-days for the blisters to dry up and crust over from the time the blister develop, it adds. However, as we’ve already mentioned, there can be long-term cases and complications that can sometimes be managed with treatments, which we’ll get to next.

11. There are Medical Treatments

The Mayo Clinic says there’s no cure for shingles, but “prompt treatment” with prescription antiviral medications can reduce symptoms and speed up recovery times.

Common antiviral medications to target shingles include Acyclovir (Zovirax) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex), it adds. However, your doctor may also opt to prescribe other drugs due to the sometimes-excruciating pain involved – these drugs may include narcotics, anticonvulsants such as Neurontin, or even topical patches such as Qutenza, it adds. Injections of corticosteroids are sometimes also used.

12. Tackling Shingles at Home

Aside from the medical solutions, there are ways to help soothe the symptoms of shingles through home remedies. EMedicineHealth says you can apply cool tap water compresses to the weeping blisters for 20-minutes, several times a day. “This also aids in removing the scabs and decreases the potential for bacterial infection,” it explains. You can also soak in a cool bath (hot water can aggravate shingles).

You can also use mild soap and water to keep the affected area clean, and apply petroleum jelly to aid in the healing process, suggests the source. Wear loose clothing to avoid rubbing against the rash. You can also get non-prescription antihistamines and topical creams to help quiet the itchiness.

13. Try The Shingles Diet

Healthline.com also has a list of home remedies, but specifically mentions dietary changes to help combat shingles. The “shingles diet” is rich is vitamins A, B-12, C, E, and lysine, explains the source.

Foods that are natural sources of these vitamins and amino acids include oranges, leafy greens, red meat, eggs, chicken, fish, dairy, whole grains, beans, and tomatoes, says the source. Avoid foods that are high in sugar, arginine (chocolate and nuts), and saturated fat while you have the virus.

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Dr. Gerald Morris

Gerald Morris, MD is a physician (Family Medicine/Internal Medicine) with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions. Hence, his contribution to articles on Activebeat.

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