Most people have heard of shingles, but many do not have a firm idea of what it actually is. I’ve diagnosed patients with shingles who knew little more than that it is rash, which is most likely to strike older adults. Although shingles can be painful, this viral infection is not life-threatening and is unlikely to lead to serious complications. Gaining a better understanding of this virus, however, will help you manage this surprisingly common condition.
How Shingles Strikes
Shingles is characterized by a often painful, blistering rash. It is usually located near the middle of your back and wraps around one side of your chest. It can also occur on the neck, scalp and face. As I noted above, shingles is a viral rash. So, how do you catch this unpleasant virus?
People diagnosed with shingles are usually shocked to hear that they have probably had the virus since childhood. In fact, it is the same virus which causes chicken pox. Once you’ve had chicken pox, your body’s immune system may not completely destroy the virus. It can lie dormant in your nervous system for years, striking when you are much older, or when your immune system is weakened, as with people undergoing chemotherapy, for example.
Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles, but the reason the virus reactivates in an otherwise healthy person is not known. It is important to seek treatment as soon as possible in order to minimize your risk of postherpetic neuralgia, the most common complication. For people experiencing neuralgia, pain occurs even after the rash heals, and may be caused by the slightest movement or touch.
To reduce the pain of shingles as well as your risk of complications, see your doctor right away. He or she may prescribe any or all of the following: antiviral medications, anti-inflammatories, and pain medications like ibuprofen. It is possible for shingles to clear up on its own in a few weeks, but treatment can make the process safer and less painful.
Vaccines are available to guard against shingles, but unfortunately, there are no guarantees. You cannot get shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox. A chickenpox vaccination is now routine for children, so if you’ve never had either the vaccine or the virus, you may consider getting vaccinated.
There is also a vaccine for shingles, which is recommended for adults over 60 years of age. It cannot treat you if you already have shingles, and it does not guarantee that you will never have a breakout. Still, it is a positive preventative measure. People with certain allergies and compromised immune systems, may not be candidates for the vaccination.
If you do come down with shingles, know that it is through no fault of your own. The best thing to do is see your doctor and follow a few simple home treatments. You may be tired and weak, so rest as need and avoid strenuous activity. Stress can make pain worse, so relax and practice techniques like meditation or engaging in hobbies you enjoy.
Over-the-counter medicines can help. You may want to take ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory. Anti-itch creams, like calamine lotion and hydrocortisone ointments, are useful. Antihistamines like Benadryl can help too. To care for blisters, wash as you normally would with gentle soap and water, up to twice a day. Do no use bandages, but cover them with a cool compress for 20 minutes or so, up to 3 times daily. A cool bath with baking soda, colloidal oatmeal, or simply uncooked oats, can also ease irritated skin.
Shingles may certainly be an unpleasant condition, but it is can be treated effectively. Consider vaccinations, and see your doctor at the first sign of rash. If you follow your doctor’s treatments and practice self-care at home, you will be feeling better in no time.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.