Singles refer to a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that also causes chickenpox. If you are suffering from small blisters that are overly painful, the chances are high that you may be having shingles. They are also referred to as herpes zoster, which is a painful blistering condition.
Even though it is never a life-threatening health condition, shingles can cause lots of pain. Clinical research shows that vaccines can help minimize your risk of developing shingles whereas early treatment can help shorten a shingles infection, reducing the chance of suffering a complication.
After an initial chickenpox infection, the varicella-zoster virus usually stays quiescent in some areas of your nerves that are associated with your spinal cord, neck region, or the nerve of the head. The virus can become active again and will eventually multiply in numbers and spread along the nerve fibers that supply the surrounding skin are. And when this happens, you will most commonly experience a very painful blistering rash in the affected skin area.
It is important to note that shingles only affect an individual who has earlier suffered a chickenpox infection. According to studies, at least 20% of those who have had chickenpox before usually develop shingles at some point during their lifetime.
So, what are the risk factors of contracting shingles?
- Emotional or physical stress.
- Being elderly: This implies that your risk of developing shingles increases as you age.
- Having a compromised immune system or having underlying medical conditions such as bone and blood cancers, HIV infection, and perhaps lymphoma.
- Your use of medication to suppress your immune system, including steroid medication, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or drugs to prevent rejections.
Are shingles contagious? And if so, can I spread it?
Simply put, shingles is not a contagious infection. As earlier explained, it is caused by the herpes zoster virus that usually remains inactive in a person’s nerve for a period, eventually resurfacing when your immune system is relatively lower. However, it is imperative to note that an individual with shingles can potentially cause and transmit chickenpox to a person who has never been infected by the virus. Also, the period of infectivity usually starts at the onset of the formation of shingles up to the time the blisters have dried and crust out. This period usually lasts for approximately one week.
So, what are the most common symptoms associated with shingles?
Pain is usually the first telltale sign of shingles infection. But, it is important to mention that not everybody with shingles will always experience pain. Some may just experience itching or minor burning sensation over the affected region.
A few days after you have experienced the abnormal itch or pain, you may also experience a group of red spots that quickly translate into blisters. You may also suffer some headache or fever. With time, your blisters may either burst or may be filled with either pus or blood. These blisters will eventually dry out, creating dry crusts or scabs. The scabs will fall off within two or three weeks.
The rash usually affects a well-demarcated area of your skin and without affecting the midline of the body. The location as well as the shape of the rash is dependent on the nerve root distribution. Though on very rare occasions, shingles can affect your face by running along the nerve root over your eyes and face, leading to eye complications such as glaucoma, scarring, and blindness.
And for those with highly compromised immune systems, shingles can manifest in a widespread generalized rash that may be strikingly similar to a chickenpox rash.
So, what should I do If I strongly believe I have shingles?
If you think you may be suffering from shingles, you should seek immediate intervention. Concerns and shingles are usually diagnosed depending on:
- History of the pain with the typical blisters or rash.
- Clinical examination.
- Tissue scraping or culture of the blisters in case there are doubts.
In general, you will have to seek professional help urgently if you have any of the below symptoms:
- If your rash is painful and extensive.
- If your rash or pain occur closer to your eyes.
So, what should I expect when I visit my doctor for shingles?
Besides reviewing your medical history and physically examining your rash, your doctor may also conduct a clinical diagnosis based on your history as well as the physical appearance of the rash. However, in early cases, or if there is some doubt regarding the diagnosis, your doctor may opt to offer a blister fluid swab test, or scrapping test to ascertain your diagnosis.
So, what are the available treatment options for shingles?
- Oral anti-viral medication: This is usually used to help shorten the duration of the shingle rash as well as to alleviate its associated unwanted effects. What’s more, this medication can prevent the development of a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia. It is highly recommended that you start this particular medication within three days of onset. This simply implies that early diagnosis is imperative.
- Symptomatic relief medications: These involve anti-inflammatories and topical creams. Whereas anti-inflammatories help alleviate pain, a topical cream can help reduce pain and can also prevent the development of post-herpetic neuralgia.
Why I am experiencing pain even though my blisters have completely healed?
Also referred to as post-herpetic neuralgia, residual pain is a complication involving shingles infection. When this occurs, the affected patient will continue to experience pain over the affected skin and nerve fibers even the shingle episode is long gone.
What can I do if I am suffering from shingles?
- You will need to consult your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you have singles. In cases where you have eye rashes, you may have to consult an eye specialist.
- You may also need to take time off and resume only after fully recuperating.
- Above all, you will have to avoid any contact with high-risk groups such as the elderly and children, those with compromised immune systems, your pregnant spouses, those who have never had chickenpox until all your blisters have crusted over.
- Consult your doctor if your itching is severe. Oral antihistamines, as well as hydrocortisone, may help alleviate your itching symptoms.
- Ensure that your blisters are clean at all times.
- Always bathe with cool water and wash blisters at least two times daily with regular soap and water, but don’t bandage them.
- You can also apply cold compressors on those blisters to help alleviate pain and itching.
So, what are some of the most common shingles complications?
Common shingles complications include post-herpetic neuralgia, brain inflammation, blindness, skin bacterial infection, hearing loss, facial muscle paralysis among others.
According to the CDC, those who are 60 years old or older should strongly consider getting the vaccine since it is the only proven way to help the development of post-herpetic neuralgia.
Shingles may not seem to be a dangerous health condition. However, if left untreated, it can lead to numerous complications that may likely put your health at risk. It is very important to prevent its occurrence before it finally develops.
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