Shingles (herpes zoster) is a nerve infection caused by the chicken-pox virus. This virus usually lays dormant, but sometimes it becomes active again later in life, which is how this painful rash develops.
What causes shingles to occur?
Many of us had chicken pox when we were younger, although there are fewer and fewer cases now that there is a vaccine. After you have the virus, it remains dormant (inactive) in the nerves of your body. However, sometimes later in life the virus becomes activated again for reasons that are unclear. When this happens, the condition is called shingles. It can happen to anyone at any time, yet certain people are more susceptible.
Many patients mistakenly believe that “nervousness” causes shingles. This is wrong; shingles is a viral infection of a nerve and has nothing to do with being “nervous.”
Research shows that you are more likely to get herpes zoster if you are over the age of 60, if you had chicken pox before you were one year of age, and if your immune system is compromised due to any current health conditions or medications you are taking.
What are the symptoms?
Initially, you might experience a slight headache followed by typical flu-like symptoms. You might experience some light sensitivity. This is usually followed by some localized pain or tingling in the affected area.
Shortly thereafter the rash of shingles begins as red patches that soon develop blisters, often on one side of the body. The blisters may remain small or can become large as you can see in the many herpes pictures on this page. They typically heal in about two to four weeks and may leave scars.
Shingles is often quite painful, due to the fact that the virus travels along the nerve to get to the skin resulting in inflammation and damage to the nerve. Sometimes it leads to a painful condition known as PHN, or postherpetic neuralgia, which is prolonged pain and sensitivity in the area that can last for months and even years.
Can shingles be treated?
Anti-viral medications such as Acyclovir can help to control the skin eruption. It is not a cure, but helps to heal the rash, provided treatment is started early. Acyclovir is taken by mouth.
There are some effective natural treatments available. One very promising one is called H-Shingles which is an FDA-registered homeopathic formula that is applied topically.
These medications may or may not eliminate discomfort, burning sensations, or pain. If the discomfort is mild, you can take Tylenol or a similar mild painkiller.If the pain is severe, you can ask your doctor about a prescription painkiller to take until the pain subsides.
Since the pain is caused by inflammation of a nerve, cortisone taken orally is sometimes used in treating the nerve inflammation.
As we mention above, the blistering rash usually clears in a few weeks, but the discomfort may persist longer.
As far as the rash itself is concerned, treat it gently. Don’t open your blisters. As long as there is blistering or crusting, compresses with dilute vinegar will make you more comfortable. Compress the blisters or crusts for 10 minutes twice daily with a mixture of one-quarter cup of white vinegar and two quarts of lukewarm water. Stop the compresses when the blisters have dried up.
Later, when the crusts and scabs are separating, your skin may become dry, tense, and cracked. If that happens, rub on a small amount of white petrolatum (plain Vaseline) three or four times a day.
What about the pain after the rash is gone?
As we mentioned above, the pain can last up to six months or longer because nerves heal very slowly.
The best treatment for the pain after the rash is gone is a cream called Zostrix. This cream can be purchased at your local pharmacy without a prescription.
To use Zostrix Cream you should apply it to the affected area five to six times a day. It will take two to three weeks of use before it start to work. This takes tremendous patience. If you persist though, the benefit of reduced pain will pay off.
Conditions with similar symptoms: