Shingles rash is an inflammation of the skin caused due to an infection by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once a person has had chickenpox, the virus can't be cleared completely, but remains within the nerve cells in a dormant condition. Later, it can become active anytime and cause shingles.
The time of reactivation and severity of the rash is not predictable. Hence, anybody who has had chickenpox before can suffer from shingles at any stage of his/her life. Most of the cases are found to occur in the adult stage of 60 years or older. In addition, people with low immunity, such as patients of cancer, HIV, and senior citizens are more susceptible to this rash. Shingles is contagious and can be spread through direct contact of a healthy person (who has not suffered from chickenpox before) with a patient who is suffering from shingles. However, the infected person will suffer from chickenpox instead of shingles.
The symptoms depend upon the type of nerve which has been affected by the virus. Though shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus, it is different from the rash of chickenpox. Unlike chickenpox (which affects most of the body), shingles affects a specific area of the skin, usually as a band on one side of the body, and particularly on the chest, back, and face.
Earlier symptoms include increased sensitivity and discomfort on a specific area where the rash is appearing. Later on, one feels burning, itching, tingling, and severe pain even with a light touch. After a few days, a red blistering rash appears and progresses to the formation of clusters of fluid-filled blisters. Along with the rash, patients may suffer from chills, headaches, abdominal pain, increased fatigue, and rarely, fever. Afterward, blisters with pus pop, resulting the fluid to ooze out. Eventually, the blisters dry out and form crusts. Sometimes, there might be bleeding and severe pain in the affected area. Generally, it takes around 30 days for the blisters to heal, and can leave skin discoloration and scars.
Diagnosis, Complications, and Treatment
In general, it is difficult to diagnose shingles, as the symptoms are vague and often confused with other forms of rash. It is diagnosed based on the history of pain and by examining the distribution of the lesions. Doctors may also undertake certain laboratory tests by taking a scrape from the blisters for confirmation.
Shingles is not a dangerous disease for healthy people. However, it may result into other life-threatening complications, especially for those people with a compromised immune system. One of the most important complications is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), in which the pain remains for several months or even years after the rash has gone. However, duration of the pain can be shortened by medication. Hutchinson’s sign is another serious inflammation caused when the blisters appear on the nose tip. It may result in swelling of the eyes, and may also cause temporary vision loss, which can be treated by an eye specialist.
Treatments of shingles are mainly aimed for shortening the duration of the rash, relieving the pain, speeding up the healing process, and reducing the risk of complications such as PHN. One of the common treatment options is oral antiviral medication, which prevents further infection by the virus. Many a time, anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids are given for reducing inflammation. Also, pain relievers are prescribed in case of severe pain. However, treatment may vary depending upon the patient’s health, medical history, and distribution of the rash.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be replaced for the advice of a medical professional.