Shingles - causes, symptoms and treatment

Anyone who has experienced shingles will know that it is much more than a rash. It can give the sufferer flu-like symptoms and cause a great deal of pain. But what is it and how can you feel better should you come down with the condition? Here's what you need to know.

shingles symptoms and treatment
shingles symptoms and treatment

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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 that famous childhood illness is long gone, it remains dormant in the nervous system. It 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 area, sometimes dull and constant or sharp and stabbing, is also common, though less so in young, healthy people or children. This pain can range from very 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, and many mistake the early signs and symptoms as insect bites or some other type of rash.

Therefore treatment usually consists of medication and self-help that will ease the symptoms.

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 the rash itself, 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 and, as mentioned, scarring may occur. 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, while postherpetic neuralgia, which can cause severe nerve pain after the symptoms have gone, is the most common complication.

Those where the shingles affects the head or eye may require further treatment, as it can damage the eye or ear if not treated.

In rare instances, the virus can also cause inflammation of the brain or spinal cord.

If you think you may have shingles, visit your GP who will be able to advise on treatment.