What is Shingles / Herpes Zoster?
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. It’s caused by the same virus that also causes chicken pox – the varicella zoster virus (VZV). After the initial infection that causes chicken pox, the VZV lies inactive in the nerve tissue. It may reactivate years later as shingles, producing blisters that form along the nerve endings. The blisters forming the rash are normally found in a localised area of the body either on the right or left side of the body or face. It usually heals within two to four weeks, although some people affected by the infection can develop nerve pain that can last for months and even years after the rash disappears. If the rash develops around the eye, blindness can occur as well. Shingles only affects those already previously infected with VZV, but adults and those with a weakened immune system are at risk the most.
Signs and Symptoms of Shingles / Herpes Zoster
The first signs that you may have shingles is a “tingling” or painful and/or burning sensation on a localised area of your skin along with a headache and fever or chills. This will then be followed by a rash with painful fluid-filled blisters on the same area. Usually, the rash is localised on a band or stripe on either the left or right side of the torso (like a “belt”) or face.
You may even experience body aches during the viral infection. The initial appearance of the rash can be similar to that of hives. However, it soon develops into the characteristic blisters associated with the viral infection. The fever and general feeling of malaise continue throughout the infection period which can last from two to four weeks. The blisters become darker as they slowly fill with blood and crust over after about a week. These crusts then fall off but the skin takes awhile longer to heal completely. Scarring may remain even after the infection heals, especially if the rash was severe.
Shingles that forms on the face are also referred to as ophthalmic shingles as they affect the nerves that control facial sensation and movement. Additional symptoms of ophthalmic shingles may include conjunctivitis, keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), loss of vision and debilitating pain if the rashes develop around the eye region. Shingles may even develop around the mouth causing rashes to appear on the palate and gums of either the upper or lower jaw. The blisters that form in the mouth become ulcers that would heal after approximately ten to fourteen days.
Is Shingles / Herpes Zoster Contagious?
The short answer is yes. A person who has been infected with the varicella zoster virus can spread it to anyone who isn’t immune to chicken pox through direct contact. If you are suffering from shingles, do not have any physical contact with anyone who hasn’t yet had chicken pox, especially if your blisters haven’t yet scabbed over. You should also stay away from pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, those who have HIV, patients undergoing cancer treatments and newborn babies.
Treatment for Shingles / Herpes Zoster
Diagnosis of shingles/herpes zoster is done easily via a visual examination as the rashes have a characteristic appearance. Vaccines (chicken pox and shingles vaccine) can help prevent shingles while early diagnosis and treatment with antiviral medication and pain medication can help shorten the infection duration and mitigate the pain and other complications that arise from the infection.
If you suspect that you have shingles/herpes zoster consult a healthcare professional immediately for diagnosis and treatment. Early treatment can help mitigate the effects of this viral infection. Thomson Specialist Skin Centre offers diagnosis and treatment for shingles.