Herpes zoster shingles is a common viral disease that is caused by the same strain of herpes responsible for chickenpox. It generally affects people over the age of 60 who have had chickenpox in the past. Symptoms include a quickly developing, painful skin rash accompanied by chills, joint aches, and fatigue. The condition usually clears up within about two weeks even without treatment, but doctors usually prescribe antiviral drugs and topical creams to relieve symptoms faster. Vaccinations are available to help prevent shingles in older persons.
After a person recovers from a childhood case of chickenpox, the herpes zoster virus becomes deactivated in his or her body. It often remains dormant for life, but occasionally the virus reawakens and migrates to the skin. Doctors are unsure exactly why or how herpes zoster causes shingles, but evidence suggests that it takes advantage of the weakening immune systems of older adults. Younger people who have immunodeficiency disorders and those who take medications that suppress immune system functioning are also at risk of developing shingles.
Rashes can emerge anywhere on the body, but they are most commonly seen along the spine and the on front of the torso. Within a few hours or days, a red, itchy, painful patch of skin grows and spreads. Pus-filled blisters arise, erupt, and crust over in the first two weeks of infection. Most people also experience flu-like symptoms of body aches, fever, joint pain, and night sweats. In addition, changes in vision, hearing, and taste are common. Rarely, an untreated case of shingles can cause paralysis in some of the muscles in the face.
A person who notices signs of shingles should schedule an appointment with his or her doctor. A physician can usually diagnose the condition simply by looking at the rash, asking about symptoms, and reviewing the patient's medical history. Once other causes of skin rashes are ruled out, the doctor can explain treatment options.
Most doctors prescribe oral antivirals such as acyclovir and famciclovir to shorten the course of this disease. In addition, a patient may be given oral or topical anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain and redness. At home, a person can use cold compresses and calamine lotion to ease itchy skin.
Herpes zoster shingles is largely preventable thanks to modern vaccinations. The vaccine for shingles is available in most developed countries, and it is recommended as part of a standard course of health care for adults over the age of 60. An individual who is interested in obtaining the vaccine can speak with his or her primary care doctor.