A viral infection of the nerve roots, shingles also called Zoster or Herpes Zoster is a skin rash condition, where painful blisters form on the skin. Varicella Zoster Virus which is responsible for causing chickenpox also causes shingles.
Shingles is commonly seen in people with weakened immune systems and older adults and appears in bands on the skin. People who are at the highest risk of suffering from shingles are those who have had chickenpox in their childhood. The varicella zoster virus lies dormant inside an individual’s nervous system for years following a chicken pox attack. While this virus remains dormant and creates no physical discomfort in certain people, others who have suffered from chicken pox are not so lucky.
Certain trigger factors causes the virus to reactivate itself and appears in the form of shingles. The factors which trigger an episode of shingles, by reactivating the varicella zoster virus, are immune deficiency disorders, stress and advancing age. In the United States, nearly 1 lakh people suffer from shingles every year. While shingles as such is not a contagious skin disease, people who have not had chicken pox or been vaccinated against it, can get chicken pox from a person with shingles.
A common misconception held by most people is that the same strain of herpes virus which causes mouth sores or genital herpes is responsible for an attack of chickenpox or shingles. This however is not the case, as it is the herpes zoster virus which causes shingles. There are several visible signs which are characteristic of this skin condition. The symptoms of shingles do not come at one go but instead comes in waves or stages.
The very first sign of an approaching shingles attack is burning pain and sensitivity to light which may extend from a few days to a week. The initial symptoms of shingles are very similar to that of flu. Then it progresses into a tingling or itching sensation on the skin. Later small red blisters appear on the skin. These blisters follow an individual nerve path and appear as several bands. The blisters are filled with a clear fluid. Later a crust forms over the blisters. It takes approximately four weeks for the crusts to form on the blisters and the healing process to be complete.
Once the blisters dry up, it can leave behind scars. Some mild rashes may also be present. Although shingles disappear on their own, without requiring any kind of medical attention, it is extremely important to consult a doctor immediately if the person starts feeling weak or dizzy, or if the rash starts spreading or if the vision starts to deteriorate. Shingles may give rise to complications like pneumonia, nervous system disorders, organ failure and problems in hearing. In severe cases which are very rare it can even result in death.
There are several ways of treating the problem of shingles. Calamine lotions and cool compresses can remove some of itchiness which is a part of this skin disease. Anti viral drugs like famciclovir, valacyclovir or acyclovir if administered within 72 hours of the rashes first appearing can lessen the severity of the rash. Non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs or NSAID can also be administered to the patient to reduce pain and inflammation.