Shingles is a viral disease, medically known as “Herpes Zoster”. In layman’s terms, it is a painful skin rash of localized occurrence, whereby clusters of fluid-filled blisters appear on the skin, often in a band or strip-like formation. The term “shingles”, derived from the Latin word for belt, came into vogue on account of the appearance of rashes in the waist region (which is its most typical manifestation).
Medical Facts about Shingles
- Shingles is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus, which is also the one that causes chickenpox in human beings.
- Usually, the condition is caused due to a reawakening of the virus; many years post the contraction of chickenpox. After one recovers from the latter condition, some virus particles remain in the body, inactive yet harnessed in the areas near the spinal cord. For reasons that are yet undetermined, the virus may begin to multiply again, which is when shingles occurs.
- If one has not contracted chickenpox in their lives, shingles may still occur, though that is less common. In this situation, exposure of the virus in the blisters may lead to an onslaught of chickenpox as well.
- The common factors that may propel reactivation include old age and poor immunity, which is why shingles is most common in individuals aged 60 to 80 years. Moreover, the burden of illness is far more severe in cases where the patient is above 70.
- Shingles is non-communicable though someone who has not had chickenpox may contract it from a shingles patient. Contracting shingles from a shingles patient would, however, not be possible.
- Statistics suggest that one in every three people may be plagued by the condition.
What does the Condition Entail?
- Since shingles is a disease of the nerve area, the rash appears in the skin region supplied by the affected nerve. The common areas for occurrence of rash are tummy, chest and the face (including neck region and eye area). Other than that, the upper arm, fist region and knees are also where shingles may appear.
- The appearance of rash is usually preceded by a tingling sensation and pain in the affected area. Typically, the rash develops 2-3 days after the pain begins. The pain may be mild or severe; it could be felt as a dull, burning ache that is constant, or a gnawing or stabbing pain that comes in spurts.
- Fresh blisters may appear on the affected area for as long as a week. Also, the surrounding areas may get swollen due to inflammation caused by the virus.
- As the patient heals and recovers, the blisters dry up and form scabs. Though the marks usually fade away, some light scarring may remain.
How Serious Can It Be?
- Usually an episode of shingles lasts for 2 to 4 weeks. Alongside pain and rashes, sometimes fever and tummy troubles may occur too.
- The condition is treated using over-the-counter painkillers and antiviral medication. Sometimes, if the symptoms are mild, like in young children or healthy adults, antivirals are avoided. In case of severe pain however, steroids are prescribed on occasion.
- For most healthy people, after an episode of shingles, there are no further complications and the system heals completely. However, in few cases, further complications occur whereby either skin infections of eye problems are caused. Most common however, is Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) due to which nerve pain persists after the rash. The latter condition usually occurs in those above 50 years of age and may last up to several months in some cases.
Shingles is thus not a disease of life threatening nature. Nor does it usually cause excessive discomfort or long lasting impact. However, those having low immunity (especially individuals above 50 years of age) should be vigilant and consult a physician for both prevention and treatment purposes very proactively.