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The varicella-zoster virus causes chicken pox and shingles. Shingles is characterized by a painful, burning rash accompanied by nerve pain. Shingles can only be caused by previous exposure to the varicella-zoster virus, the virus that causes the chickenpox. Once introduced into the body, the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in the body for the rest of a person’s lifespan, even if treatment for the initial infection was successful. A weakened immune system can allow the virus to re-activate itself, causing the characteristic burning rash of shingles.
Unlike chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. A person with shingles can only pass the varicella-virus on to a young individual who has never been exposed to the virus before. That individual will develop chickenpox, not shingles. An estimated 25% of the adult population will develop shingles during their lifespans. Shingles usually occurs in individuals over the age of 50 or in younger individuals with an otherwise compromised immune system. As age increases, so does the severity of the symptoms. According to the National Institute of Health, the “burden of illness” is double among individuals greater than 70 as compared to those 60-69 years old.
A variety of treatments are available to help lessen the severity of shingles symptoms, but there is currently no cure. Most adults affected by shingles will make a full recovery, though many will develop a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which results in persistent nerve pain lasting months or years after the initial rash.
The varicella-zoster virus causes shingles, the same virus responsible for the childhood illness known as the chickenpox. The body never fully rids itself of the varicella-zoster virus even after the initial chickenpox infection subsides; the virus lay dormant in the body for the remainder of a person’s lifetime. When the immune system is significantly compromised or the body is under stress, the varicella-zoster virus can reactivate. This causes the burning and painful rash we know to be shingles.
The damage done by the varicella-zoster virus to nerves is what causes postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), lasting pain after the initial shingles rash.
The following factors affect your risk of developing Shingles:
In most cases, shingles can be diagnosed with a simple physical exam and medical history. The lesions are characteristic enough that most physicians will be able to easily recognize them without further testing.
In cases where shingles does not present itself in the typical way, or in cases with special circumstances, doctors may take a scraping of the affected tissue and sending the sample to a laboratory to be analyzed. The laboratory will be able to check for antibodies against the varicella-zoster virus, the presence of which indicates shingles.
he signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body.
These signs and symptoms may include:
Some people also experience:
Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some people, it can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, it is sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs, or kidneys. Some people experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash.
Most commonly, the shingles rash develops as a stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso. Sometimes the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
Many cases of shingles resolve themselves in 2-3 weeks. More stubborn cases may require a longer period of healing time or intervention with anti-viral medications. The pain during this period can be mild or severe. Many people report lingering nerve pain after the rash has subsided, lasting up to several months or years (known as postherpatic neuralgia, or PHN).
The following tips can help make living with shingles easier:
Shingles is not regularly screened for because symptoms develop quickly and are relatively recognizable. If you feel that you are experiencing any of the symptoms of shingles, call your doctor.
Fortunately, there are available vaccines against the varicella-zoster virus that can decrease the likelihood of developing shingles:
Treatment for shingles is most effective when begun in the early stages of the disease. Available treatment options include:
Treatment for postherpetic neuralgia may include:
Opioids, such as tramadol, codeine, oxycodone, and morphine
The following treatments may also be helpful in reducing shingles symptoms and pain:
The following tips can help accelerate your healing process:
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of shingles, call your doctor as soon as possible. Early treatment is key in managing the disease.
If you are currently being treated for shingles, call a doctor if you experience:
To find a general practitioner, visit www.healthgrades.com
To find a certified dermatologist, visit The American Academy of Dermatology
To find a neurologist to assist with postherpatic neuralgia nerve pain, visit The American Academy of Neurology
You may want to ask your doctor the following questions about shingles:
For more information on Shingles, visit:
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