Shingles is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It presents like a skin infection and in fact can be mistaken for one. Since the virus that causes shingles is also the one responsible for chicken pox, a person can only get shingles if they have ever had chicken pox. The problem is that most of us had chicken pox during childhood years and don’t remember the incident.
Typical signs of shingles are a painful rash and blisters. Only a localized area of the body is usually affected. Also, shingles doesn’t cross the body’s midline. This is because the herpes zoster virus remains in nerve fibers that serve different dermatomes after a chicken pox outbreak.
Rash and blisters aren’t the only symptoms of shingles. Others include fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, tingling, pain and itchiness. In this article, we examine the relationship between shingles and severe headache.
Can shingles cause severe headache?
A shingles begins with flu-like symptoms. These include fever, fatigue, nausea and headache. Patients mostly complain about fatigue and general tiredness.
Soon, pain develops on a localized body area. The face, lower back and trunk are mostly affected. The pain may be accompanied by tingling, itchiness, burning and stinging.
After a few days, usually 2-3 days, a rash and small spots appear on areas where pain is being felt. The spots soon turn into blisters which often break open and ooze. Pain usually gets worse with time.
Normally, shingles outbreaks last for 2-4 weeks. So can shingles cause severe headache? Headache is usually among the early symptoms of shingles but not always severe. Regardless, a severe headache as a result of shingles is not uncommon.
Shingles headache a comprehensive view
Headaches are either primary or secondary. Primary headaches occur when the head or its structures are involved in trauma or the cause of the headache. Changes in brain chemicals can also be responsible.
Secondary headaches can be thought of as signs of other conditions. For example, you can have a secondary headache when inflammation or a tumor stimulates the nerves that carry pain signals to the brain. Other possible causes include lack of enough oxygen and heavy drinking.
Below is a shingles headache a comprehensive view. We will go through some of the ways shingles can cause a severe headache.
Many people are able to live with the herpes zoster virus without any signs of infection. When the virus is reactivated, it quickly replicates and produces many viral proteins. In response, the body undergoes a couple of changes in attempt to make conditions unfriendly for viral invasion. Such changes and presence of pathogens in the blood interferes with several body functions. Ultimately, the changes are recorded in the brain which among other things causes a headache.
The shingles virus travels through nerve fibers towards the skin. This leads to trauma and sometimes damage which in turn causes inflammation. If the infection is in one of the several cranial nerves, pain caused by the inflammation can trigger a severe headache.
Post-herpetic neuralgia occurs when pain continues even after all other shingles symptoms are gone. It is thought to be caused by unintended pain signals arising from nerves which had been damaged by the herpes zoster virus. Post-herpetic neuralgia can last for months or years. For this reason, it can cause long periods of headaches as the brain is constantly bombarded with pain signals.
Inflammation in the brain:
Severe headache can be a sign of inflammation in the brain. It is a complication of shingles that occurs in about 1% of all cases. People with serious immune issues are at highest risk of this complication.
When shingles blisters have broken open, they can provide portals of entry which bacterial can use to get into the skin and cause infection. Bacterial infections cause fever, headache, nausea, warmth and swelling among other signs.
Ramsay Hunt syndrome:
Ramsay Hunt syndrome occurs when shingles affects the nerves that control hearing and balance. In short, it is a complication of shingles in the ear. It is caused by inflammation inside the ear and may result in a severe headache.
Hutchinson’s sign is caused by shingles in the ophthalmic nerve. This is the nerve that serves the upper eyelid, forehead, cornea and tip of nose. The nerve branches from trigeminal nerve, the largest of all cranial nerves. Inflammation or rogue signals in these nerves can cause severe headaches.
Internal shingles occurs when rash and blisters do not materialize. It is a more serious form and can cause an intense headache. Internal shingles treatment is usually very necessary.
Any of the above is a potential cause of severe headache. Sometimes, it depends on severity of the infection. For example, a severe outbreak can be announced by a severe headache as part of the flu-like symptoms.
Who gets shingles severe headache
Anyone with shingles can get severe headache as a symptom or complication of the disease. Immunocompromised people are at a higher risk however.
People with recurring shingles are also more likely to suffer from a severe headache. In fact, recurring headaches are a common sign of post-herpetic neuralgia.
First contact with the varicella virus causes chicken pox. Someone who has never had chicken pox or vaccinated against the disease is 90% more likely to catch the herpes zoster virus when exposed. Chicken pox causes more extensive signs and symptoms compared to shingles. Is shingles contagious to adults who have not had chickenpox? Shingles is not contagious but the herpes zoster virus is. Anyone who has not had chicken pox and contracts the virus will develop the disease. Shingles may come later in life. Consider learning more on the difference between chickenpox and shingles.
Shingles headache treatment
Knowing the actual cause of severe headache due to shingles is crucial before deciding which the best treatment is.
Flu-like symptoms can be improved with antiviral medications. Patients are advised to seek medical attention within 72 hours of first symptoms. Otherwise, the drugs will not be of much help. How long does shingles last with treatment? Although drugs may help quicken recovery, shingles almost always lasts for 2-4 weeks.
Post-herpetic neuralgia is treated with a variety of medications. They include:
- Pain killers
- Anticonvulsants such as gabapentin for shingles
- Capsaicin creams
- Anesthetic patches
- Corticosteroids like prednisone
You doctor will help you choose the best shingles headache treatment. A drug like prednisone for example reduces inflammation and can ease pain. The problem is that prednisone for shingles side effects include suppressed immunity. If you can remember, suppressed immunity has been identified as the main cause of shingles. A couple of tests may be required to rule out other possible causes of headaches such as emotional stress or anxiety.
How to prevent severe shingles headache
It is known that shingles outbreaks are worse in people with weakened immunity. While infections and diseases such as HIV and leukemia may be responsible for compromised immunity, age is usually the common cause. But since old age is inevitable, the most that can be done to keep the immune system strong is include healthy foods in the diet.
In the advent of a shingles outbreak, patients are advised to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Treatments have better chances of working if they are taken before too many viral proteins have been made. Over the counter products and home remedies for shingles may also prove helpful. They are aimed at reducing pain and itchiness which may be partial causes of severe headache. What is the incubation period for shingles? Shingles is not the primary infection caused by varicella-zoster virus. For this reason, giving a number of days to its incubation period is challenging. Regardless, rash and blisters appear about 2-3 days after first signs.
Vaccines can also help prevent severe outbreaks and may shorten recovery period. The shingles vaccine is recommended for people above age 60. Remember to learn more about vaccine side effects before a final decision.
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