Shingles are a viral infection that causes a painful rash and blistering on the face and body. It is caused by the same virus that gives you chicken pox but in can be spread virally to individuals that have not actually had chicken pox before. Shingles mostly appears on the body as a single strip of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso. Shingles is most common in people over 50 years old. About 1 in 4 people will get shingles at some point in their lives. One surprising fact about Shingles is that you can’t catch it from someone that already has the Shingles.

For the best possible chance of a cure seek medical advice and treatment in the first few days of the rash appearing.

What Are Shingles And What Do Shingles Look Like?

Shingles is an infection of the nerves caused by the varicella zoster virus. Shingles is most recognisable by the painful skin rash that appears on one side of the face, or in a large band around one side of the torso – the area of skin supplied by the affected nerve. Shingles can also cause headaches and flu-like symptoms. The symptoms generally last 2-4 weeks.

Shingles is most common in older adults and people with weak immune systems. About one in four people have shingles at one point in their lives. Over the age of 50 shingles becomes increasingly more common. Shingles is the same dormant virus that causes chickenpox, if you have had chickenpox in the past you may develop shingles. It is uncommon to have shingles more than once.

What Causes Shingles?

Most people have had chickenpox, usually as a child. The virus can never be cured completely. Particles of the virus lie dormant in the roots of nerves next to the spinal chord. There are no symptoms and for some people it remains dormant forever. For others the virus returns when the immune system is weakened by disease, stress, or ageing in the form of shingles.

Shingles is not contagious – you can not catch shingles from another person with shingles.

Symptoms Of Shingles

The symptoms of shingles happens in stages. First you may get a headache, be sensitive to light or have flu without fever. Later you may feel itching or pain in a specific area. Two or three days later a rash will appear. The pain is localised and can range from mild to severe. The affected area of skin is usually tender.

The rash will turn into clusters of blisters which fill with fluid and crust over. New blisters may appear for up to a week. The soft tissues under and around the rash may become swollen for a while due to swelling (inflammation) caused by the virus. The blisters then dry up, form scabs, and gradually fade away. Slight scarring may occur where the blisters have been. It takes 2 to 4 weeks for the blisters to heal and they can scar, although some people only get a mild rash and some not at all. The rash is usually on one side of the body as the virus only affects one nerve – pain and a rash occur in the area of skin that nerve supplies.

Postherpetic Neuralgia

Postherpetic Neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication associated with shingles. PHN is a nerve pain (neuralgia) that persists after the shingles rash has cleared. 20% of over 60’s suffering with shingles have PHN pain that lasts for over a month. The pain eases gradually. If the pain you experience from shingles clears and returns sometime later, this is also called PHN.

Some other possible but uncommon complications from shingles are skin infection from an infected rash; swollen eye, temporary vision loss; muscle weakness.

Who Is At Risk Of Getting Shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. You have a greater chance of getting shingles if you are 50 and older as your immune systems weakens gradually with the onset of old age.

People with a poor immune system should see a doctor as soon as they get shingles. That includes those taking steroids, anti-arthritis medicine or any kind of immunosuppressive treatment.

What Is The Best Treatment For Shingles

Shingles can be treated with antiviral medicine. Antivirals help your rash heal faster and lessen pain. They are more effective the earlier you take them, so see a doctor right away if you think you have shingles. 

To manage pain over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol, codeine and anti-inflammatory ibuprofen can bring some relief. If more severe pain persists there are stronger painkillers, many particularly useful for nerve pain.

Take care of skin sores, keep them clean. Loose fitting cotton clothes are best to avoid irritation. Ice cubes, wet dressings and a cool bath can reduce pain. When the rash blisters you can use a non-adherent dressing. Simple creams/emollients will ease an itchy rash. 

Shingles Vaccine

There is a vaccine for shingles available to adults. It lowers the possibility of getting shingles and prevents Postherpetic Neuralgia (PHN) – the long term pain that can follow shingles.

If you already have shingles the vaccine will lessen the pain and your rash should clear up better and quicker.

Posted by Zoe Harnois