Have you had chickenpox in the past? Then you’re at a higher risk
of having shingles. One in every three Americans will contract shingles
in their lifetime, and the risk of an outbreak increases as individuals
get older. “Anyone who has previously had chickenpox is at risk,” says
Phillip Cecchini, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
Mission Heritage Medical Group. “Shingles, which is also known as herpes zoster, is caused by the
varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Varicella
is not curable, so once you’ve had it, you have it for life. It
remains inactive in the body attaching itself to nerve tissues in your
spinal cord and brain. But as you get older, the virus may reactivate
causing a painful rash on the skin known as shingles.”
Although children are also susceptible to shingles, it is more common in
men and women over the age of 60. Individuals who have medical conditions
that affect their immune systems, such as cancer and HIV or who are currently
taking immunosuppressive drugs such as steroids, are also at higher risk
of an outbreak.
“Shingles is identified by a rash that occurs in a single stripe
on one side of the body, most commonly on the torso or face,” says
Dr. Cecchini. “But symptoms such as itching, tingling and pain in
the area where the rash will appear, can start as early as one to five
days prior to the visible signs.” Once blisters have formed, they
can take seven to 10 days to scab over, with the entire outbreak lasting
between three to five weeks. During this time, patients often experience
an increasing intensity of pain in the area of the rash. The pain can
often be so intense that it is mistaken for more serious conditions of
the heart, lungs or kidneys.
"The varicella virus that causes chickenpox, which can later lead
to shingles, is highly contagious," says Dr. Cecchini. If you have
shingles and come into contact with someone who has not had chicken pox
before, then it is very likely that you will give it to them. However,
the risk of spreading the varicella virus can be reduced by keeping the
rash covered up, until all the sores and scabs have completely disappeared.
"If you have shingles, then it's best to stay away from pregnant
women, babies and people with weakened immune systems. They are much more
susceptible to catching the varicella virus and are at higher risk of
complications if infected, " he says.
Shingles symptoms can be treated with antiviral medications. “Antiviral
medications help to speed up the healing process,” says Dr. Cecchini.
“Your doctor can also prescribe various pain management options
or topical creams to help ease the more severe symptoms. A nice cold bath
has also been known to help relieve itching and pain in patients,”
he suggests. “Shingles shouldn’t be taken lightly. Even if
treatment is administered there can be serious complications. So it’s
important that patients who think they may be experiencing symptoms contact
their doctor immediately,” he says.
For some patients, nerve damage may occur, and the pain caused by the blisters
may continue long after the disease has cleared up. This is called post-herpetic
neuralgia (PHN). “PHN can be debilitating, making everyday routines
and tasks difficult,” says Dr. Cecchini. “Loss of vision,
blindness and in some cases neurological problems resulting from inflammation
in the brain may also occur.”
Dr. Cecchini advises, “The best way to reduce your risk of developing
shingles is to get vaccinated. If you are in your early 50s, ask your
doctor if you would benefit from the shingles vaccination.”
Have you experienced shingles? How did you manage the symptoms such as
itching? Share your suggestions below.