Shingles

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Learn more about what causes shingles, its symptoms, treatment and more.

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Shingles is not a life-threatening condition; however it can be very painful. Early treatment can help shorten the duration of a shingles infection and minimise the chance of complications. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox.

Following a chickenpox infection, the virus lies inactive (dormant) in the nerves and may be reactivated many years later as shingles. Typically, the shingles rash occurs on one side of the body, and may appear as a band of blisters following the path of the nerve where the virus had been inactive.

Risk Factors

Older persons aged more than 60 years
People with weakened immune systems due to:
a) HIV/AIDS
b) Medical treatments such as steroids, radiation and chemotherapy
c) A history of bone or lymphatic cancer

Shingles Symptoms

The symptoms of shingles may include:
Pain, burning, tingling or extreme sensitivity in a certain part of the body
A red rash with or without itching that begins a few days after the pain
Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
Fever with chills and headaches
Upset stomach or abdominal pain

Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles, and can be intense with just the slightest touch causing severe pain, while some patients may have the pain without the rash.

Shingles Diagnosis

Shingles is usually diagnosed based on:
History of the pain with the typical rash or blisters
Clinical examination
Tissue scraping or culture of the blisters if in doubt

Seek professional help promptly if you have any of these symptoms:
The pain and rash occur near the eyes — this can lead to permanent eye damage if left untreated
The rash is extensive and painful

Shingles Complications

Complications from shingles include:
Post-herpetic neuralgia — a condition which is excruciatingly painful
Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
Hearing problems
Temporary or permanent blindness
Loss of facial movement (paralysis)
Secondary bacterial skin infections if the blisters are not treated adequately

Shingles Treatment

An episode of shingles usually heals on its own within a few weeks, but prompt treatment can ease pain, promote healing and reduce the risk of complications.

Treatment options for shingles include:
High doses of oral antiviral medications acyclovir, valacyclovir or famciclovir
Anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids (prednisone) to reduce inflammation and lower the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia
Pain relievers such as narcotics (opioids) may be needed for relief of severe pain
Topical ointments to soothe the pain such as lidocaine

Tips to help minimise the pain:
See your doctor and request for pain relief if the pain is severe.
Apply an anti-itch cream or calamine lotion to the affected area.
See your doctor if itching is severe. Hydrocortisone cream or oral antihistamines may be necessary to relieve itching.
Bathe with cool water and wash the blisters twice a day with regular soap and water, but do not bandage them.
You may apply cool compresses to the blisters to relieve the pain and itch.

Shingles Prevention

Preventive measures include the shingles vaccine, which can reduce the risk of getting the disease. Speak to your doctor to find out more about the vaccine.

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