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Shingles (Herpes Zoster): Symptoms, Causes and Prevention

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes painful rashes that can be found on the surface of your body. This infection is caused by the same virus, which causes chickenpox – Varicella Zoster virus.

Often shingle appears as an after infection. This means that once you have chickenpox, often if not adequately treated, the varicella virus can stay within your central nervous system, and after a few months or even years later, it can manifest forming shingles.

Most times, people who have shingles are those who have had a bout of untreated or improperly treated chickenpox. According to the World Health Organisation(W.H.O), at one point or another in their lives, approximately one person in 3-5 people in the United States will have shingles.

This infection, although it can occur on any part of your body, the records shows that in people who have had the virus, the rashes mostly appear on the torso of the body. Generally, shingles present as a pair of blisters that wraps around either the left side or the right part of the trunk of your body.

Shingles may not be a life-threatening condition; however, it can be excruciating. There are vaccines that can help reduce the complications that can be caused as a result of shingles as well as reduce its lifespan in the body of the patient.

It is quite common for people to often mistake one infection for another. Although the same virus causes both chickenpox and shingles, however, they are different in presentations.

While chickenpox causes blisters that are often very itchy that may begin on your back, chest, face before spreading to the remaining parts of the body, shingles, on the other hand, presents as a cluster of blisters which is often quite painful.

Most times, shingles show up on one part of your body and don’t spread like chickenpox.

Causes of shingles

Anyone who has had chickenpox before could develop shingles if the chickenpox hadn’t been adequately treated initially.

Although not everyone who has had chickenpox will develop shingles, however, the majority of people who have developed chickenpox tend to have the virus hide within their nervous system.

Where after a couple of years later, it comes out, reactivated, travels along the pathway of the neurons, and manifests as shingles on the skin.

The reason why shingles occur is still relatively unclear; however, some doctors may have attributed it to be as a result of a lowered immune system. Generally, as a person grows older, the strength of the person’s immune system weakens and, as such, can cause a series of diseases to manifest, such as shingles.

For most people who have been reported to have had this disease, it is usually more common among the elderly, and those whose immune system has become compromised and weakened as a result of other diseases.

As was earlier stated, shingles are often an after infection of chickenpox. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. This virus is known as the Varicella Zoster virus. The Varicella Zoster virus is a virus that is part of the group of viruses named the Herpes Virus.

The Herpes Viruses are the viruses that are usually responsible for the infection called genital herpes as well as cold sores. Because of this, the virus that causes shingles is also known as the Herpes zoster virus.

However, it doesn’t entirely belong to the Herpes group. The viruses that cause both chickenpox and shingles belong to a different family and, as a result, cannot be transmitted sexually.

In other words, although both genital herpes and cold sores can be transmitted sexually, shingles and chickenpox can not be transmitted sexually; instead, they are spread on contact.

This, therefore, begs the question of “Are You contagious?” Anyone who has shingles can easily pass the virus Varicella Zoster to anyone who doesn’t have any immunity against chickenpox.

Once an immunocompromised person or someone who doesn’t haven’t gotten the vaccine against chickenpox comes in contact with open sores caused by shingles, and the person becomes infected.

However, the person who is now infected doesn’t immediately develop shingles; instead, he or she develops chickenpox first and may later go on to develop shingles. Chickenpox is often rated as very dangerous for certain people.

If you are infected, it is best to keep away from having physical contact with people(especially those who haven’t had the vaccine against chickenpox).

Generally, those who have chickenpox should avoid immunocompromised people(people with weakened immune systems) as well as pregnant and children.

Symptoms of Shingles

Usually, the first symptom of shingles that the patient will experience is a burning and painful sensation just around the area where the blisters are found. Generally, the pain occurs on one side of the body and also in small patches.

Just immediately after the appearance of the patches, a red rash is seen to appear. The red rash is mostly characterized by;

  1. Blisters that are mostly fluid-filled. They tend to break when punctured easily.
  2. Red patches that always wrap around only the torso.
  3. Breakouts, which can also be seen on both the eyes and the ears.
  4. The patches are often very itchy

Some people, aside from the painful and itchy rash, can also experience the following symptoms:

  1. Increase in temperature levels causing fever to occur
  2. Severe chills and shivering
  3. Intense headaches which can seem to increase steadily
  4. Muscle weakness
  5. Fatigue is usually felt all around the body.

Generally, these are the symptoms one who has shingles will likely experience. However, when shingles are seen in some individual parts of the body, they can cause other symptoms to occur. They include:

1. Shingles on the face

It is quite normal to see shingles on the torso of one’s body; however, it is not so common for one to see shingles on the face. Sometimes, the shingles can appear close to your ears.

Once it is found close to or inside the ears, it can cause certain symptoms such as ear infection, which can lead to hearing loss; it can cause an imbalance, as well as facial muscle weakness.

Sometimes, shingles can be found in the mouth, and it can cause a lot of discomforts. It may cause difficulties in eating and swallowing as well as it can cause taste problems. Shingles can also be seen on the scalp, and once it is found there, it causes hypersensitivity whenever you comb or brush your hair.

If left untreated, shingles on the scalp may result in the formation of bald patches on the head.

2. Shingles on the eye

Whenever shingles is found on the eye or areas surrounding the eye, it can result in what is often referred to as Opthalamic Herpes Zoster or Herpes Zoster Ophthalamicus.

According to research, shingles on the eye is seen to occur in about 10%- 20% of people who present with shingles.

People who have shingles on their eyes often notice a rash or blister that appears on either their eyes, forehead or on their nose, especially the tip or the side.

You may also feel a burning or throbbing sensation in the eye, which may cause swelling and redness. The patient may also experience teary eyes and eventually get blurred vision.

Even after the rash is treated, it is possible for the pain to linger due to a potential damage on the nerve. However, the pain will subside in a while, but without treatment, long term shingles can lead to the permanent scarring of the cornea as a result of excessive swelling as well as prolonged vision loss.

Treatment within the first 72hours of shingles on the eye can help reduce the tendency of resulting complications.

3. Shingles around the back

Shingles on the back is usually common, and it mostly appears just above the waistline. However, a cluster of blisters can be seen on one side of your back or around your lower back.

4. Shingles on your buttocks

Shingles can also appear as a blistering rash on your buttocks. However, since it is characteristic for shingles to appear on only one side of the body, then you won’t see the blistering rash on both cheeks.

Instead, you may see shingles on the right butt cheek but not on the left and vice versa. As it is with shingles, the initial symptoms a person who has shingles on his or her butt cheek will experience is tingling, and itching which may sometimes be associated with pain.

After a few days, these blisters will form a rash. However, it is entirely possible for a person to develop a rash without associating pain.

Risk factors

Although anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, however, there are certain factors that can increase your chances of developing the infection faster. They include:

1. Age

Research has shown that as you grow in age, the tendency of you to develop shingles also increases. Experts have shown that if you are 50 and above, you can develop shingles faster.

Some scientists have concluded that almost half of the people who are 80years and above will most likely develop shingles before they eventually die.

2. Immune diseases

If you have any disease such as cancer and HIV/AIDS, which has the ability to reduce the strength of your immune system, then you have an increased chance of developing shingles.

3. Treatments

Undergoing specific therapies such as chemotherapy and having to undergo radiation can have an adverse effect on your immune system, hence, reducing your resistance to certain diseases such as shingles.

4. Medications

Certain medications such as drugs which are injected as a post-transplant procedure (which helps in reducing the risk of the body rejecting the transplanted organ) can increase your chances of developing shingles

Complications associated with shingles

1. Loss of Vision

Shingles that mostly occur around the eye, also known as Ophthalmic Shingles, can cause some eye infections which, if left untreated for a while, can cause irritations of the cornea and eventually, vision loss.

2. Skin infections

If the blisters that are on the skin as a result of shingles aren’t properly treated, it can cause open sores, which in turn can become a breeding spot for bacteria causing skin infections.

3. Postherpetic Neuralgia

In some people, the pain experienced as a result of shingles still persists even after the shingles have been long treated. This condition, which is known as Postherpetic Neuralgia, often occurs as a result of a damaged nerve fiver.

Generally, nerve fibers are responsible for sending impulses between the nervous system and other parts of the body.

Once these fibers become damaged, especially the nerve fibers related to pain, they tend to send false or confusing pain signals to the brain, which the brain will interpret as a high level of pain, and the person ends up experiencing severe pain.

Prevention

Although there is no known cure for shingles, there are preventive measures that come in the form of a vaccine that a person can take. These vaccines include:

1. Chickenpox vaccine

The chickenpox vaccine is a regular vaccine that is administered during childhood. The vaccine, otherwise known as the Varivax, is also recommended for some adults who, for one reason or another, didn’t get the vaccination as a child or haven’t ever gotten the infection.

This vaccine, however, doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get chickenpox or shingles. This vaccine helps in reducing the risk of developing complications associated with shingles.

2. Shingles Vaccine

There are two drugs that are recommended to be taken as the shingles vaccine. They include Zostavax and Shingrix. These vaccines also don’t guarantee that one won’t develop either shingles or chickenpox; however, they reduce the chances of developing complications.

In 2017, Shingrix was approved by the F.D.A. to be a better vaccine for people who are older than 50. However, for those who are 60 years and above, Zostavax is highly recommended.

Yet, both have almost the same side effects, which include inflammation, pain, redness, headaches, tenderness to touch at the point of the injection.

In conclusion, shingles is an infection that can be avoided by properly treating chickenpox. Also, th early treatment of shingles can avoid any complication, hence, we recommend that upon any symptom, you must visit your doctor for appropriate help.

References;

Deborah Akinola
Wirter, poet and public speaker

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