Shingles usually only affects a small section of the body. Pain is typically the first symptom of shingles, which is followed by a red rash a few days after the pain starts. The most common placement of the rash is a stripe-like pattern that wraps around one side of the torso. However, it can also appear around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
The rash will develop fluid-filled blisters that will then break open and crust over. Similar to the blisters produced by chickenpox, shingles blisters are often painfully itchy as well. Other common symptoms include fever, headache, sensitivity to light, and fatigue.
(phot via NIAID, CC BY 2.0)
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, but it's not possible to "catch" the condition—it only affects those who have contracted chickenpox at some point in their lives. Older adults and people who have weakened immune systems are more likely to develop shingles than others, and this is because it's suspected that the reactivation of the virus has something to do with a lowered immunity to infections.
Shingles Risk Factors
Although having chickenpox immediately icnreases the risk for shingles, it often takes a combination of things for the virus to surface. Age, immune system diseases, radiation or chemotherapy, and even some medications can make you more likely to develop shingles.
There is no definitive cure for shingles. However, taking prescription antiviral medications can help reduce the severity of some symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. The most commonly used drugs include acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famiciclovir. In some cases, other medications may be prescribed as well—including creams, anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants, numbing agents, narcotics, or injections. The exact combination of medications depends on the location and severity of pain.
Shingles Home Remedies
Very little can be done, aside from managing symptoms, to make shingles less uncomfortable. Cool baths and cold compresses are often helpful in relieving the rash. Additionally, take steps to prevent scratching the rash, such as wearing gloves, so as not to cause infection and further pain.
The development of scars is to be expected. Although some may become less obvious with time, others may need some help. Applying vitamin E oil can improve circulation and skin regeneration. Over-the-counter creams with diphenhydramine can help scarring. Other natural treatments include lemon juice, honey, papaya, coconut water, sandalwood paste, and aloe vera.
Postherpetic neuralgia can develop when the rash is gone, but the pain remains: the nerves get confused and damaged, and send false signals of pain to the brain. Other damaged nerves may cause encephalitis (brain swelling), facial paralysis, and other sensory problems. Skin infections can occur if the open sores of the rash get infected with bacteria. Ophthalmic shingles, those on or near the eye, can cause serious optic infections and even blindness.
When to See a Doctor About Shingles
If the rash develops near the eyes, it’s important to see a doctor. Complications increase with age, which means anyone over 70 who develops shingles should also schedule an appointment, as should anyone with an immunodeficiency or improperly functioning immune system. If symptoms become very extreme, it’s also a good idea to see a physician.
Preventing shingles can’t be done in any way beyond vaccinations and trying to keep your body healthy and supplied with the right vitamins and minerals for a strong immune system. The zoster vaccine, while not 100% effective, still prevents some cases of shingles and reduces the severity of others. It’s a good idea for older or less healthy populations to consider the shingles vaccine.
Shingles and the Herpes Virus
The varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles is classified as a herpes virus and is sometimes referred to as herpes zoster. However, this does not mean that shingles is caused by the same virus that leads to genital herpes. While shingles is technically contagious, it is much less so than herpes and cannot be spread sexually at all.