Shingles is a skin infection which though usually not lethal or seriously damaging, can be very distressing to deal with. This is because its symptoms are of a nature that impedes regular human activities, thus leading to much discomfort and stress.
What is worse is that there are few real preventive measures one can take to avoid contracting shingles. This is because the disease is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus (VZV) – the virus that is responsible for chickenpox as well. It is mostly on reactivation of the residual virus particles that remain in the body even post recovery from chickenpox that leads to shingles. The factors that propel or trigger this reactivation of VZV however, remain to be an enigma in the medical world.
Consider these statistics:
- One in every three people may contract shingles at some point in time during their lives.
- The preventive vaccination is known to reduce risk by just 1.75% which means that only one in 70 episodes can be definitively avoided amongst those vaccinated.
- Majority of cases occur in individuals over 50 years of age (and thus weaker immunity).
As is evident, shingles is unpredictable and largely so, difficult to protect oneself against. Therefore, being prepared and in the know of the lived experience of the disease is perhaps the only defence one has against it; forewarned is forearmed. Here is some information on what it is like to be living with shingles.
The chief, defining symptom of shingles is a painful skin rash of localized action. Alongside this, flu-like symptoms of ill-health like fever, chills and an upset stomach may be experienced. The primary and most common distresses shingles then produces are:
- The painful rash; the infected region develops pain several days prior to appearance of rash. The pain may manifest as a constant, dull throbbing or sporadic, shooting aches.
- The itching and burning; the shingles rash is characterized by fluid-filled blisters which are prone to oozing and leakage. These eruptions cause itching and burning sensation on the skin, which is already often tender and swollen.
- Though full and uncomplicated recovery is possible, some people develop conditions which affect them after healing as well; most common of all complications is postherapetic neuralgia (PHN) which causes nerve pain for several months, sometimes even years, after recovery. Other complications include skin infections from the bacteria in blisters and more alarmingly, even vision impairment, if the rash occurs in the eye region.
It is important to understand that there is no cure for shingles, just treatment that can lessen the duration of illness and reduce the intensity of distress. To treat it effectively to this extent, the following action is recommended:
- Consult a physician at the earliest, for this reduces the risk of later complications.
- The doctor is likely to prescribe antiviral medication to contain the virus and painkillers (of variable potency) to alleviate the pain. Take the prescribed doses religiously for a speedy recovery.
- Antibiotics for topical application on the rash may also be prescribed. Use them as recommended to relieve discomfort and prevent infections. Do not pick or burst the blisters of your own accord.
- Apply cold compresses on the blisters every few hours to help reduce the itching and burning sensation. Use the compress for no longer than 20 minutes.
- Wear loose clothes as it shall prevent further torment to the sensitive skin.
- Do not share towels or clothes or medicines of topical application with anyone. Even though shingles is non-communicable, it can trigger chickenpox in someone who has not yet had it.
As is evident from all of the above, coping with shingles requires one to act responsibly, with great attention to ensuring it is contained as fast as possible. The only respite is that most shingles episodes last for 2 to 4 weeks after which, most healthy individuals are completely healed. Patients above the age of 50 should however, be wary of further complications.