Shingles: Causes, treatment and prevention

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Caused by the same virus blamed for chicken pox, shingles in likely to infect those with a weak immune system. 

[caption id="attachment_3748" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Adults over 60 and children below one are more susceptible to shingles"]Adults over 60 and children below one are more susceptible to shingles[/caption]

What is Shingles? 

Commonly known as shingles, herpes zoster, is an infection where the skin suffers from painful rashes and blisters, caused by varicella zoster, a virus blamed for chicken pox.

Shingles, typically appears in a stripe or group in a limited area on one side of the body. Rashes and blisters caused by shingles heal within 2-4 weeks, but in some cases the pain stays on for long after the rashes go. This condition is called post-herpetic neuralgia in medical language.

What causes shingles?

  • Shingles is said to be caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox.
  • Studies reveal that children infected with chicken pox below the age of 1, and adults above 60 are more likely to suffer from shingles.
  • The virus that causes chicken pox becomes inactive once an individual is cured of chicken pox, but it remains latent in the nervous system. When the immune system is weak due to diseases like cancer and AIDS or even emotional stress, the virus can become active once again and cause shingles.
  • Shingles is contagious in the sense that an individual will not develop shingles from another individual who is suffering from shingles, but is likely to suffer from chicken pox if he/she hasn’t got a chicken pox vaccine or has not suffered from chicken pox in the past.

Symptoms for shingles

  • Shingles occurs in phases. The first stage of shingles before rashes and blisters appear is a burning or tingling sensation or itchy, sensitive skin -- accompanied by fever, headache and a general feeling of discomfort.
  • The second stage starts a day or two later. In this stage, one will notice rashes that over time can become fluid-filled blisters.
  • The blisters spread on the path of nerves that come out of the spinal cord.
  • The third stage is when the blisters burst to form small ulcers.
  • In the final stage, these ulcers dry and form crusts to heal the infected area.

Prevalence of shingles

Shingles is prevalent all over the world. Every year its occurrence ranges from 1.2 to 3.4 cases per 1,000 healthy persons while that among individuals older than 65 years is 3.9 to 11.8 per 1,000 individuals.

Treatment for shingles

Within 24 hours of having shingles symptoms, one should visit a dermatologist or doctor.

Usually, the doctor asks for a skin sample test to find if the skin is infected with varicella zoster virus and blood test is done to check the WBC (white blood cell) count.

Shingles is a non-curative disease. The medication prescribed for the disease helps reduce its intensity and prevent further complications.

  • The initial treatment for shingles includes prescribing anti-viral and analgesic medicines that can relieve the patient from pain caused by the disease and quicken the pace of healing.
  • Antibiotics and lotions are prescribed for oral application on rashes and blisters.
  • In complicated cases, doctors even opt for steroids.
  • In cases where shingles have affected the eyes, an ophthalmologist is consulted.
  • In cases where an individual with much weakened immune system gets infected with shingles, they are recommended to hospitals wherein they are treated with antiviral antibodies.

Prevention of shingles

An individual who has suffered from chicken pox is likely to get shingles later on. A vaccine called Zostavax is prescribed for individuals above 60 to prevent that. Studies all over the world reveal that the shingles vaccine has reduced the occurrence of the disease by 50%.

Avoid contact with any person infected with the disease.

Moreover, those who have had chicken pox previously must incorporate a healthy lifestyle that will ensure a strong immune system.

Reviewed by Dr Bhushan Madke, Dermatologist

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