How to recognize shingles

Only old people get shingles. Not true. People of any age who have had chickenpox can get this disease. The reason is that the varicella-zoster virus lingers in the body in the nerve roots. Many things can trigger an outbreak of shingles, including a suppressed immune system, stress, a general run-down condition, etc. How does someone know if he or she has shingles?

First, a person needs to know if he has ever had chicken pox. If he has, he should remember he is at risk for shingles. If he has never had chicken pox, whatever he has isn’t shingles.

Shingles can begin up to two weeks before the actual rash breaks out. It can start with a feeling of being generally unwell, run-down, tired rather flu-like. However, the rash will always break out. It usually starts as a cluster of small bumps that may be itchy, tingly, or intensely painful. The rash is usually on the face and ears, or on the trunk.

It occurs only on one side of the body. This is because the virus is reactivated and travels up the nerves from whence it lay dormant. A one-sided rash is the hallmark of shingles. Eventually, the bumps will become fluid-filled blisters (vesicles) and will burst and crust over, just as the chickenpox rash does.

Most shingles outbreaks last about three to five weeks, from the first rash until the last bumps disappear. Most people have an uneventful recovery, but the outbreak can be extremely painful. Some sufferers have likened it to having a cigarette lighter placed against the skin. This is because the nerve under the skin is inflamed.

Complications from shingles result when the outbreak is left untreated, is along the ophthalmic nerve, which can cause eye damage or even blindness, and when the pain from the shingles persists after the outbreak has run its course. Called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), this pain can persist for months, or even years. Some success in treating this disorder has come with the advent of lidocaine patches, which more or less anesthetize the afflicted nerve, without being greatly absorbed systemically.

Shingles usually only shows up once in a person’s life, but those with compromised or suppressed immune systems can suffer multiple episodes. Those with AIDS, lupus, diabetes or any disease affecting the immune system can have more than one outbreak.

The best treatment for shingles is rapid medical treatment. The sooner a person sees a doctor after the first suspicion of shingles, the better off he or she will be. Antiviral drugs are very helpful in reducing the severity and duration of the outbreak, but they must be started within 48 hours of the rash appearing, ideally in less than 24. Otherwise, they are of small benefit. However, the person treated in the first 24 hours after the rash’s appearance will usually have a much lighter outbreak, with few, if any complications, and much less chance of experiencing PHN.

Other treatments for shingles include pain relievers, steroids, which help reduce the inflammation of the nerves and skin, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants (for severe cases). The topical patches are also usually prescribed to further alleviate the pain.

Some researchers think that the chicken pox vaccine may eventually help lessen, or even eradicate, shingles outbreaks, but this is still a matter of debate.

Shingles is an unpleasant, often painful disease, but it is, fortunately, not contagious to those who have had chickenpox. It could infect someone with chickenpox (not shingles) who has not previously had the disease, so the sufferer should stay away from crowds until the last rash has crusted over.

Those who suspect they may be suffering from shingles, because of that red, painful rash on one side of the body, should seek immediate medical attention. Doing so can lessen the severity of their outbreak by many degrees.

Those who suspect

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