Anyone who has experienced shingles will know that it is much more than a rash. As well as causing flu-like symptoms, it can be very painful. Here's what you need to know.
What is shingles?
Shingles is caused by the herpes varicella-zoster virus, and is an infection of a nerve and the surrounding skin. The same virus causes chickenpox, and even after the illness is long gone, it remains dormant in the nervous system and can be reactivated later in life, causing shingles.
This commonly occurs in older people, those under physical and emotional stress, and those with a weakened immune system, such as HIV or AIDS sufferers and anyone who has recently undergone treatment for another serious condition. It can also reoccur on more than one occasion.
Though you cannot catch shingles from someone with the condition, anyone who has never had chickenpox can catch the virus from a shingles sufferer.
What are the symptoms?
The key symptom of shingles is an itchy, painful rash, but some experience symptoms anywhere from one to four days before the rash itself appears.
Muscle pain, a burning, tingling or itchy sensation on the affected area of skin, a high temperature and a general feeling that you are unwell are all early symptoms of the infection. Pain in the affected may be dull and constant or sharp and stabbing and can range from mild to severe.
Following several days of these early symptoms, the rash will begin to appear. Any part of the body can be affected, though the chest and abdomen are the most common areas. It will also usually appear only on one side of the body.
To begin with, it will appear as red blotches, but quickly turns into an itchy, blister-like rash, similar to chickenpox. New blisters may continue to appear for up to a week, and after roughly three days, they will begin to dry and flatten. These blisters usually scab and may leave some scarring. Sufferers may also feel fatigued, and some experience pain in their arms and legs. From beginning to end, a case of shingles usually takes two to four weeks to completely heal.
Unfortunately there is no cure for shingles. Though antiviral medication can help to stop the virus from multiplying, it is really only effective if taken within three days of the rash appearing. Painkillers such as paracetamol will help to ease some of the discomfort, and following diagnosis, your GP may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the painful symptoms.
With regards to the rash, it is important to keep it as clean and dry as possible, reducing the risk of infection by bacteria. Avoid using dressings or antibiotic creams or gels as these will only slow the healing process. Loose-fitting clothing may help to prevent irritation of the rash, while calamine lotion will soothe the skin and relieve the itching. If you are struggling to stop yourself scratching, an antihistamine may help.
Occasionally, shingles can cause complications. An infection of the rash, where it becomes red and tender, may require a course of antibiotics. According to NHS Choices, nerve damage, or peripheral motor neuropathy, affects one or two in every 20 people who develop shingles (commonly older people) and usually affects a single limb. Postherpetic neuralgia, which can cause severe nerve pain after the symptoms have gone, is another complication.
Cases where the shingles affects the head or eye may require further treatment, as it can damage the eye or ear if not treated. In very rare instances, the virus can also cause inflammation of the brain or spinal cord. If you think you may have shingles, be sure to see your GP.
Three products that may help....
Natural Home Remedies For Shingles, £9.27
Boots Calamine Lotion (200ml) £1.09
Anadin Paracetamol 500mg Tablets (16) £1.25