Shingles is a painful and uncomfortable skin rash caused by the herpes zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Although the body can recover from an outbreak of chickenpox, the virus never completely leaves your body. It becomes dormant and hides within your nerve cells and may appear later in life as shingles. An outbreak of shingles symptoms can happen at any point in a person's life, but it tends to be more common in people over 50.
What causes shingles?
Shingles is a consequence of chickenpox and most people contract it when they are very young. In general, most people recover completely from chickenpox without any ill effects or further outbreaks, but the herpes zoster virus still remains in the body's nerve cells. The reasons why the virus gets reactivated as shingles is not entirely clear. The most plausible theory is that it's as a result of a weakened immune system.
Is shingles contagious?
Unlike most other infections caused by the herpes virus, shingles is not contagious. This means that you won't catch the virus from someone who is displaying visible symptoms, but if you have never had chickenpox then you may contract it from a person with shingles. Contracting chickenpox as an adult is not as dangerous as catching the mumps, but adults are more at risk of suffering complications.
What are the shingles symptoms?
The first signs of a shingles symptoms outbreak are usually a burning or tingling sensation in a specific area, which is then followed by a fever. Around two to three days after these initial symptoms, a rash will begin to appear, featuring tiny blisters on red swollen skin. After three to five days, these blisters burst and a scab will form, which will heal in two to three weeks.
There are very rare instances where people may still experience nerve pain after the rash has disappeared. This is known as prosthetic neuralgia, and may be difficult to treat.
What causes an outbreak?
It is not entirely known what re-activates the herpes virus and why some people have an outbreak and others don't. There have however been some associations between outbreaks and a weakened immune system. People with immune deficiency diseases such as HIV tend to be very susceptible to outbreaks. However, most people will only experience an outbreak of shingles two to three times during their lifetime.
You will not be able to cure shingles, but there are various ways to keep the virus under control and make sure that the discomfort of an outbreak is significantly reduced. Zostavax is a vaccine that is available to people over 50 with a healthy immune system. It can reduce your chances of developing an outbreak by 50% over a four-year period.
If you are not eligible for a vaccination, or you are already experiencing symptoms, there are anti-viral medicines available to help treat the immediate symptoms and cut down your recovery time. Valtrex, Famvir and Aciclovir are some of the most commonly used treatments:
Valtrex for shingles - Valtrex can soothe symptoms and reduce the time it takes for you to recover. If taken at the first signs of symptoms, it can reduce the spread of the rash by more than a third.
Famvir for shingles - Famvir can reduce your recovery time by two to three days and can calm symptoms. Famvir can also reduce the severe nerve pain that is sometimes experienced when you have an outbreak.
Aciclovir for shingles – Aciclovir is a highly effective generic treatment that can be used by most people to help reduce the duration of a shingles outbreak and provide much-needed symptomatic relief.
Treatments and how they are taken