Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a chronic skin condition that affects roughly one in five Americans. Shingles outbreaks can recur and rest, but with the right tools and a good dermatologist you can improve symptoms such as shingles blisters and possibly prevent future outbreaks.
If you’re unfamiliar with shingles, consider yourself lucky. Shingles is very rarely fatal when treated, but lesions caused by the virus are incredibly painful and uncomfortable. Shingles form asymmetrically, meaning they form on one side of the face or body. These lesions become fluid-filled blisters that are incredibly painful and can be punctured, possibly spreading the virus to others if they come into contact with the fluid or affected skin. After a week to ten days, the blisters scab over and usually clear in two weeks to a month. During this time, other flu-like symptoms may occur, including nausea, headaches, and fever.
Some people with shingles develop a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. PHN is nerve pain that can last for months or years after a person has had shingles. When shingles recedes from the skin, it can remain deeper within the body, wreaking havoc on the nerves beneath the affected area. The pain from PHN can be extremely debilitating and severely impact daily life. Some 10 to 18% of people who have had shingles develop PHN.
With shingles, everyone is technically at risk. Even though you need to have had chickenpox to contract shingles, anyone can be affected by herpes zoster. Since shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus, the chickenpox virus is what’s spread in the fluid from blisters. People who have not had chickenpox will develop the milder condition when they come into contact with shingles. Anyone can get chickenpox, so it’s important to take precautions when you’re contagious.
Shingles is often associated with people over 40, and while it’s true that older people are more likely to develop the disease, the symptoms are the same for everyone. PHN, as previously discussed, is a bit different. People under 40 who have had shingles are far less likely to develop PHN than people over 40. The pain caused by PHN seems to intensify with age, but the reason isn’t clear. Postherpetic neuralgia disproportionately affects the elderly, and can be permanent.
The best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated against the condition. Zostavax is the name for this vaccine. It is recommended for anyone older than 60, but can also be administered to people 50 and older. The vaccine’s success rate is roughly 50%, so it does not totally protect a person from shingles. But don’t let those odds get you down: even if you do develop shingles after getting the Zostavax vaccine, the symptoms of your outbreak will often be far less severe. People with Zostavax are also less likely to develop PHN.
Since shingles is caused by a viral outbreak of herpes zoster, antivirals are the best way to treat shingles. Acyclovir and famciclovir are the two leading antiviral treatments for herpes zoster. They can help your body fight the virus and shorten the length of symptoms when prescribed early. If you’re experiencing extreme pain, your doctor may prescribe painkillers or provide topical corticosteroids to fight pain, reduce inflammation, and promote healing.
Once you’ve been prescribed antivirals or been given the Zostavax vaccine, get rest and avoid pressure or strain on the affected area. Shingles is very contagious, so keep away from pregnant women, children, or people with compromised immune systems until your symptoms resolve. Taking warm, colloidal oatmeal baths can relieve the pain and itchiness caused by shingles blisters and scabs. Calamine lotion can also help with irritation and pain. Icing or chilling affected skin with a wet cold compress can relieve pain as well.
Shingles can be a difficult condition to reckon with—pain doesn’t always go away when the blisters do. If you are over the age of 50 or are otherwise at risk to develop shingles, reach out to the professional New England dermatologists at Northeast Dermatology Associates today.
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