Shingles is also known as zoster or herpes zoster. It is caused by a virus called the Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) — the same virus that causes chicken pox. The name “herpes zoster” is sometimes confusing because people usually think of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) which causes genital herpes, oral herpes, etc. when they hear of herpes. However, both the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and the Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) belong to the herpes family of viruses. So just a bit of confusing terminology and names.
Why does shingles occur? After prior chicken pox or vaccination, VZV virus stays in your cells. Often with increasing age or when your immune system is down, the virus can reassert itself. That’s why singles is more common in older individuals and in those with a weak immune system (such as in HIV patients).
What does shingles look like? Individuals can actually feel tingling, numbness or pain before the rash even starts. The rash then manifests as red patches or bumps which then develop blisters. The blisters can then pop and crust over. Because the virus travels from nerve roots, the rash will often be in a localized area of just one half of your body (called a dermatome). Shingles can be quite painful and the pain can last even after the rash subsides (aka postherpetic neuralgia).
Is shingles contagious? As long as your blisters remain, you are contagious and you will “shed” the VZV virus. Stay away from older individuals, newborns and young babies, and those with weakened immune systems (patients getting chemotherapy, HIV patients, individuals taking medications that suppress the immune system, etc.) Because the blisters contain virus, don’t pop them or scratch them and spread the virus to other areas.
Is shingles serious? What are some complications? See your doctor if you are concerned you may have shingles. Shingles involving the eye can lead to blindness. Shingles involving the bones around your mouth can lead to destruction of those bones and cause you to lose teeth. Shingles can also affect the ear causing deafness. One important complication is called postherpetic neuralgia where pain lasts after the rash disappears. More on this on a separate post.
What is the treatment for shingles? There are medications that fight the virus. Some that are often used are acyclovir, valacyclovir or famciclovir. They can decrease the length of time you have shingles and can decrease the severity of your outbreak.
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