Shingles (Herpes Zoster) is a viral infection. It causes a painful rash that is most commonly visible on your midsection. The same strand of virus that produces chickenpox causes shingles. The virus may remain in your body if you’ve had chickenpox before, potentially reactivating from its dormant state and appear as shingles.
An early diagnosis is critical to a short-lived shingles infection. While not life-threatening, the shingles virus is very painful and can cause complications.
What Causes Shingles?
Only people who have had chickenpox can develop shingles. This specific strand of the herpes virus can lay inactive for a year but can re-emerge. The virus, which was previously lying dormant in the nervous system, can travel along nerve fibers and cause shingles. Where the shingles rash appears reflects the affected nerves.
Why shingles re-emerge is unclear. Shingles are more common in older adults and those with weak immune systems. This may be why the virus appears after not causing any symptoms in previous years.
The symptoms of shingles usually only affect a particular area of the body. Pain is the first symptom, regardless of where the rash and inflammation appear, varying in degree. It is possible to experience pain without having a visible rash. Although this is rare, the symptoms are oftentimes confused with other heart or lung conditions.
The rash appears in a row of blisters, frequently more visibly on the torso, around the eye, or on the neck and face.
Other symptoms include:
- Pain, burning, numbness, or tingling
- Sensitivity to touch
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
Patients often experience a fever, headaches, fatigue, and sensitivity to light along with the rash.
How is Shingles Treated?
There is no direct cure for shingles, but seeing a doctor and having an early diagnosis can reduce the risk of complications. Anti-viral medications can quicken the healing process. If interventional care is sought after early enough, effective treatments are possible.
The best time to treat it is within the first two weeks of having pain. After the first month, the success rate of reducing pain and eliminating the virus goes down considerably. Interventional treatments to reduce pain should be considered if a patient has consistent and ongoing pain due to an outbreak.
Treatment options vary, depending on the affected area. A stellate ganglion or trigeminal nerve block may be recommended for pain that occurs in the face. Pain in the neck or lower body may be relieved with a series of epidural steroid injections. Lumbar sympathetic blocks are another treatment option. These treatment types are all administered in an outpatient setting.
While most people only get this virus once, but it is possible to get them two or more times. To prevent the chances of getting shingles, physicians recommend that children receive a chickenpox vaccine. For adults, it is recommended that they receive a shingles vaccine.