What is Shingles?

Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is a painful skin rash that develops from the varicella-zoster virus, which is also the virus that causes chickenpox. Once a person has come in contact or been afflicted with chickenpox, the virus remains within the body. During adulthood, the virus can reactivate within the nerves and cause the development of shingles. Shingles is most common in older adults who have weakened immune systems due to stress, medication, injury, or other medical conditions. It is estimated that one in four people in the U.S. will be affected by shingles at some point in their lifetime.

Most healthy people that develop shingles will only experience symptoms for a few weeks and the condition most likely will not return. For others, symptoms may linger for a few months and be more severe. At the onsite of shingles, people report developing headaches, fever, dizziness, and light sensitivity. As time progresses, tingling, itching, joint pain, swollen glands, and burning pain commonly develop. The skin rash usually tends to be focused on one side of the body or in one particular location of the body. The rash will eventually turn into clusters of blisters that are filled with fluid. Any scratching by the patient can cause the blisters to burst and may possibly scar the skin. Shingles most commonly develops in the areas of the chest, stomach, spine, face, and mouth, but could involve any location on the body.

Causes of  Shingles

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus that remains dormant within the sensory cranial nerves or the sensory ganglia of the spinal dorsal root. These sensory nerves relay information to the brain about the body’s sensations, such as temperature and pain. When the varicella-zoster virus reactivates, it travels within these sensory cell bodies to the skin, causing a rash to erupt. The development of shingles is usually more complex than the first affliction of chickenpox. Many patients report moderate to severe pain that affects their mental, physical, and social daily functions.
A person who comes in contact with someone who has shingles will not catch the condition like one would with chickenpox. Adults who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine do have some risk of catching the varicella-zoster virus.
People over the age of fifty and those individuals with a weakened or stressed immune system are at greater risk of developing shingles.
A physician can usually diagnose the condition by an examination of the skin and reviewing a patient’s medical history.
Complications can arise from shingles, mainly due to the symptoms associated with the condition. Cases of bacterial infections, ocular problems, decreased mobility, and meningitis have been reported.

Treatment for Shingles

There is currently no cure for shingles, but many types of treatment have been found to decrease painful symptoms and, in some cases, the longevity of the virus. It is important to begin treatment for shingles at the onset of symptoms to reduce the likelihood of complications.

Many recommended treatments can be done by the patient at home, such as cool compresses, oatmeal baths, and the application of calamine lotion to calm the rash and reduce itching. A physician may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antiviral drugs, or steroid medication throughout the treatment until all symptoms of shingles are gone.

Complementary and alternative types of therapy, such as yoga and relaxation, have also been shown to be effective in pain relief. These types of therapy help the patient focus their energy and attention on something other than their painful symptoms.

There is a shingles vaccine that is sometimes administered to patients who are over the age of fifty or have a severely weakened immune system. The vaccine does not cure shingles, but it reduces the chance of at-risk patients developing the condition.

Conclusion

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash that develops when the varicella-zoster virus is reactivated in the body (after having chickenpox). The condition arises most commonly in adults over fifty and in people who have weakened immune systems, although anyone who has come in contact with or who has had chickenpox is at risk. There is no cure for shingles, but many treatments can decrease pain, itching, and the longevity of the illness. Alternative therapies, such as yoga and relaxation, are often recommended to successfully draw the patient’s focus away from the painful symptoms.

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