Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster herpes virus, which also causes chickenpox. When you have chickenpox, the virus stays dormant – but it can become active again at any time. You’ll be especially vulnerable when your immunity is low – for example when you’re stressed, injured or have undergone medical treatment. It usually affects a specific area of the body, but doesn’t cross over the midline of the body.
Symptoms of shingles
The most common early symptom is numbness, itching or tingling centred on one part of the body or face – frequently the abdominal area. The pain can get a lot worse as shingles develops and sometimes can be sharp and stabbing. You also may experience headaches, fever and feel generally unwell.
The rash will initially look red and blotchy and then will start to blister like chickenpox. New blisters could continue to appear for up to a week and then the lesions will scab over
Unfortunately there is no cure for shingles, but you can treat it in order to ease symptoms. It takes about two to four weeks for the rash to resolve. Sometimes pain continues – this is called postherpetic neuralgia and is caused by damage to nerve fibres. It is important to see your GP as soon as you can if you recognise the symptoms of shingles, as early treatment could help to reduce the severity of the condition. You can also do a number of things yourself to help relieve symptoms:
- Keep the rash clean and dry so it doesn’t get infected
- Avoid wearing tight clothing
- Use calamine lotion to cool the skin
- Don’t use topical (rub-on) antibiotics or adhesive dressings
You also may be prescribed a course of antiviral tablets lasting seven to ten days – examples include: valaciclovir, famiciclover, acyclovir. These medications help stop shingles multiplying, but cannot stop it altogether. They are most effective when taken within 72 hours of your rash appearing, but they may be started later after your rash appears if you’re at risk of severe shingles or developing complications. A vaccination is now also available to prevent shingles.
Is shingles contagious?
Shingles can’t be passed from one person to another, but someone who’s never had chickenpox can contract the virus from someone with shingles. Make sure you cover the rash with a dressing and follow strict personal hygiene to avoid spreading the infection (this can happen if the fluid from the rash comes into contact with someone else). Avoid contact with anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox, especially pregnant women, people with weak immune systems and children.
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