Shingles is a viral infection caused by varicella zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. A painful rash of blisters which extends from the middle of the back and wraps around to the side of the chest to the sternum presents itself, although these blisters can also manifest themselves on other body parts as well.
Shingles can cause quite a bit of pain long before the telltale signs of the blisters is evident. The notion that once you have had chickenpox you will never get it again may be true, but no one ever really said that the virus can travel back to your nerves and lie dormant for years and that it may reactivate and come back to haunt you as shingles.
Painful as it may be, shingles is not life-threatening. However, it can lead to complications such as postherpetic neuralgia if it is not under control. This condition causes your skin to remain hypersensitive and painful long after the shingles rash clears up. Early detection of shingles will result in less of a chance of complications.
Signs and Possible Symptoms of Shingles
Shingles does not always manifest itself in the appearance of blisters. Sometimes, it is just a red rash that is painful to the touch or even just heightened sensitivity along with burning or painful sensations on parts of the body. Without the blisters, shingles is harder to detect and diagnose.
If blisters are present, they will typically rupture, drain and crust over. There may be itching involved as well as headache, fever, cold sweats, chills and even abdominal pain and stomach upset. It all depends on where the shingles occurs on the body as to what it may do. Without the rash or blisters, the sensitivity to pain could be misdiagnosed as other conditions like appendicitis or even gallstones.
While chickenpox had to do more with itching, shingles is more painful with less itching sensations. No one really knows why some adults form shingles and others do not. The theory is that adults with lower immunity may reactivate the virus from some type of trigger like a simple cold or other illness. This may also occur because the immune system was not strong enough during your younger years to totally eradicate the varicella zoster virus so it went dormant until that trigger occurs.
Treatment Options for Shingles
Minor episodes of shingles will usually resolve themselves in a few weeks but catching it early on with medical intervention can reduce the pain and speed the healing process. A multi-pronged approach may be needed. One part would be large doses of antiviral drugs like Valtrex or Famvir at the first appearance of the rash or blisters. Anti-inflammatory medications like prednisone (a corticosteroid) may be used to reduce the throbbing pain and swelling. And if the pain is intense, prescription pain medications with narcotics may be needed.
Both the chickenpox vaccine and a shingles vaccine have been known to lessen the severity of a shingles episode. The chickenpox vaccine would be for older teens and young adults while the shingles vaccine is for older adults. Just remember, the vaccine wont prevent shingles, but an episode would likely be greatly reduced because of it.