Shingles is a viral infection along a nerve pathway and the surrounding tissue. The same virus that causes chickenpox is responsible for shingles (also called herpes zoster).
There are two main areas of the body where shingles usually appears: the sides along the waistline and along the facial region of the head. Shingles can affect anyone at any age.
Early warning symptoms that may indicate shingles include headaches, feeling feverish and sensitive sensations around the affected areas. The main symptom, once the patient has contracted the virus, is a rash. This rash appears on one side of the body as it is activated along a neural or nerve pathway and thus is localised to just that area. Appearing as small red blotches similar to chickenpox these then develop into blisters for up to a week or so. Eventually they will change into a yellowish colour, flatten and dry out. Scabs will form over this area and may leave scarring. It usually takes about four weeks for the rash to fully heal and, with scarring a few months after that.
The pain that accompanies the rash can be constant, dull, burning, stabbing and can vary from mild to severe. Ophthalmic shingles can develop along the trigeminal nerve in the face and the rash and pain is localised there. The rash here can progress over the forehead and into the hairline as well as down towards the nose. Ophthalmic shingles is slightly more risky in that the area around the eye can be affected. The eyelid may become inflamed and the eye itself susceptible to infections such as conjunctivitis
The cause of shingles is by the re-activation of the varicella-zoster virus. This virus is also responsible for chickenpox. After initial infection of the virus, usually in early childhood, it remains dormant. When it is re-activated is causes shingles. The precise cause of re-activation is unknown but sufferers have always shown a lowered immunity when shingles appears. Causes of lowered immunity are old age, emotional or physical stress, and chemotherapy or organ transplantation (requiring the use of immunosuppressants). While chickenpox is contagious, shingles is not. However, a person with activated shingles can pass the virus on to a person who has not had chickenpox. Women who are pregnant, people with weak immune systems and babies under one month old are at greater risk of infection.
While there is no cure for shingles, there are treatments for alleviating its symptoms. Creams to soothe and reduce inflammation of the rash. Keeping the affected area clean and dry will also aid in a speedy recovery. In addition to analgesics (painkillers) a course of anti-viral medication may be administered; this anti-viral is to stop the virus from multiplying thus reducing its lifespan. The typical timespan of shingles is within four weeks.