What is Shingles?
Earlier this week, a new report from Taiwanese researchers in the journal Stroke noted that adults who had had herpes zoster were 31% more likely to suffer a stroke within a year than were people who had not had shingles. For more information on that report, check out this article.
Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus may lie inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
Shingles can occur anywhere on your body, but it most often appears as a band of blisters that wraps from the middle of your back around one side of your chest to your breastbone. The pain associated with shingles can be severe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults age 60 and older should receive the shingles vaccine (Zostavax), whether or not they have had shingles previously. The vaccination will reduce your risk of shingles. The vaccine is not approved for use in adults younger than age 60.
The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body. These include:
* Pain, burning, numbness or tingling or itching
* A red rash that begins a few days after the pain. The rash may progress to fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over.
The pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some, it can be very intense. Some people experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash. Depending upon the location of the pain, it can sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs or kidneys.
Most commonly, the shingles rash develops as a band of blisters that wraps around one side of your chest from your spine to your breastbone. Sometimes the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
If you suspect you have shingles, contact your doctor promptly. It is especially important in the following situations:
* The pain and rash occur near your eyes. If left untreated, this infection can lead to permanent eye damage.
* You or someone in your family has a weakened immune system (due to cancer, medications or chronic illness).
Because shingles is due to the varicella-zoster virus, a person with shingles can pass it on to anyone who hasn't had chickenpox. That person will get chickenpox not shingles. This usually occurs through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash.
A person with shingles is considered contagious once the rash appears until the blisters scab over. They should avoid physical contact with pregnant women, newborns, or anyone who has a weak immune system while contagious.
An episode of shingles usually heals on its own within a few weeks, but prompt treatment can ease pain, speed healing and reduce your risk of complications. For best results, antiviral drugs should be started within 72 hours of the first sign of the shingles rash.
Complications from shingles can range from a mild to severe, ranging from minor skin infections to postherpetic neuralgia.
Skin infections can occur if the rash is scratched to vigorously or the broken blisters become infected. Good skin care is important.
Vision loss can occur when shingles occurs in or around the eye. Be sure to see your physician promptly if your case of shingles is in this location.
Pain that continues after the blisters have cleared is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It occurs when damaged nerve fibers send confused and exaggerated messages of pain from your skin to your brain. Pain medication, antidepressants or anticonvulsant medications may help provide relief until the pain subsides.