Last Updated on Wednesday, 27 October 2010 14:19
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Shingles is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox.
Shingles results in clusters of burning, itching blisters, typically on one side of the chest or back but may affect the face and more rarely the eye.
Shingles is a viral infection that affects the skin. It's characterized by unilateral (one-sided), inflammatory, painful, fluid filled blisters.
Early symptoms of shingles include burning or shooting pain, and tingling or itching on the body or face. A sure sign is the appearance of blisters that last for over fourteen days.
One of the characteristics of shingles is that it appears along either the cranial or the spinal nerve. The blisters often run from the middle of your back around one side of your chest to your breastbone. They may also appear on your face along the path of the trigeminal nerve.
The pain caused by shingles can be severe and unbearable; it can last for weeks, months or even years. This debilitating complication is called post herpetic neuralgia.
After a chicken pox infection the virus remains dormant inside the body, hidden in the nervous system. If for some reason, the immune system is weakened, the virus can be ‘reactivated’. When this happens the virus travels down a nerve and causes a rash in the area of skin supplied by that nerve.
Shingles is most common in the 50 plus age group as the immune system weakens with age.
Reactivation of the virus may be triggered by an infection somewhere else in the body or after emotional or physical stress – all factors that place additional strain on the immune system.
A doctor can diagnose shingles by the appearance of the rash and whether the patient has had chicken pox. A blood test or tissue culture of a blister may reveal signs of activated varicella-zoster virus.
Around 20-25% of people develop shingles in their lifetime. Both men and women are affected equally. It's most common in older people, but those with weakened immunity are also susceptible, irrespective of their age-group.
Although excruciatingly painful, shingles is not a life-threatening disease. There's no cure for shingles but there is medication for the pain and inflammation that will help to reduce discomfort. Preventive vaccination is available for people over 60 years of age.
Relieve itching by applying a cool compress; using a soothing lotion like calamine or a prescription steroid cream for severe symptoms.
Pain relief - paracetamol or ibuprofen are both available from your pharmacy and will help relieve mild pain. For strong pain and for post-herpetic neuralgia your doctor may prescribe other drugs, including narcotic drugs like tramadol or codeine.
Capsaicin cream contains an extract from chilli peppers and is known to help severe nerve pain.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing known to stimulate natural pain relief chemicals in the brain (endorphins), which can help with pain.
- More on Shingles Treatment
There is a vaccine that reduces the risk of developing shingles. The vaccine is available in the US and is given to the 60 plus age group. The vaccine is not available in the UK.
Next: Shingles Symptoms