Shingles is not a serious disease but can result in some complications. Although it presents with symptoms of a skin infection, it is a disease of the nervous system in reality. You can only get shingles if you have contracted chicken pox in the past. This is because the two diseases are caused by varicella-zoster virus. 1 in 3 persons will develop shingles in their lifetime.
Typical shingles symptoms are a painful rash and blisters. But other infections like herpes and chicken pox also present with blisters and rash. So how can shingles be identified from its symptoms? These are some of the details covered in this article.
As it is with other viral infections, not much can be done to flush the herpes zoster virus from the body. Measures are however available to prevent intense symptoms and shorten the recovery period. In fact, complications of shingles are not as bothersome as the common symptoms. Complications are however more intense when they occur.
Early shingles symptoms
Early shingles symptoms are not always obvious. Patients can easily mistake them for a common cold or the flu. The symptoms may include:
Fever is not usually present and if so, it is usually mild. Unlike the flu or a cold, shingles doesn’t cause a runny nose.
The next symptoms to appear do so a few days before the more noticeable signs and only involve a small part of the body or face. You can for instance have shingles symptoms on the lower back and but not involving the buttocks. These include:
How do you get shingles? The virus that causes chicken pox remains in the body even after a patient recovers from the disease. To avoid detection by immune cells, the virus hides in sensory nerves that branch out from the spinal cord to different dermatomes. Exactly how the virus stays in latency for years or even decades is not fully understood. Immune cells are thought to play a major role in keeping the virus from manifesting. When the immune system is compromised, the herpes zoster virus replicates and moves towards the skin. But since the initial chicken pox infection induced a form of resistance, only a certain dermatome is affected.
Internal shingles symptoms
Internal shingles symptoms largely include most of the ones discussed above. But to simply things a little bit, we can categorize them into flu-like symptoms and pain.
For the herpes zoster virus to survive, it has to keep producing viral proteins. But as long as the immune system is healthy enough, the produced viral proteins do not cause any problems. An activated shingles virus results in overflow of viral proteins into the system. In response, the body initiates an array of actions and reactions as it attempts to render conditions inhospitable for the new viruses being made. These actions are felt as flu-like symptoms. Not all patients experience these symptoms, however. If present, they usually are mild and in fact are not considered defining symptoms of shingles. Patients often complain about persisting fatigue, however.
Pain is a very common symptom of shingles. In fact, it may be present as symptoms of shingles with no rash. There are two explanations to why shingles causes pain. One theory argues that the herpes zoster virus causes neurological damage to sensory nerves. These nerves then become a source of signals translated in the brain as pain. The other explanation argues that inflammation in nerve fibers affected by herpes zoster virus is to blame. Whichever the case, shingles pain is not caused by physical injury or external stimuli. This means that it can occur before other signs appear. It can also persist even after other signs have disappeared.
In some patients, post-herpetic neuralgia improves on its own. Other patients have to be treated with medications such as antidepressants to relieve the pain. In others, prolonged pain is also accompanied by prolonged itchiness. This can prove a particularly difficult case to treat.
How long does shingles last untreated? After the internal symptoms of shingles, more defining signs appear. These are a painful rash and blisters. These signs persist for about 2-4 weeks. Without treatment, recovery may not actually occur until the fifth week.
What causes shingles rash and blisters?
The relationship between shingles and chicken pox has been explained. But what herpes virus causes shingles? What causes shingles rash?
You probably have heard of herpes or perhaps even the infamous claim that “everyone has herpes.” The herpes being referred to in that case is the one that causes oral and genital sores. Herpes and shingles are different disease and present with different symptoms. However, they are caused by viruses in the herpes virus family. Below are quick facts that may help clear the grounds on what herpes virus causes shingles.
Shingles is caused by varicella-zoster virus or what is sometimes referred to as the herpes zoster virus. Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus.
Initial contamination with varicella-zoster virus results in chicken pox. Thereafter, reactivation will result in shingles. Once you contract the herpes simplex virus, herpes occurs as the primary infection no matter the circumstances.
Both viruses are able to stay dormant in the body for months, years or even decades. Herpes zoster virus is commonly triggered by weakened immunity while herpes can be triggered by other factors such as stress, trauma, menstruation and fever.
Shingles is not contagious. However, herpes zoster virus can be passed to healthy people when blisters have broken open or are oozing. Herpes is very contagious. It is mainly transmitted during skin to skin contact. Oral, vaginal or anal sex can also transmit the infection.
Shingles only shows up on localized areas, usually in a band-like appearance. This can be seen in shingles on scalp pictures. Herpes on the other hand causes sores, mostly around mouth or genitals. Try comparing cold sores pictures with shingles in mouth and throat pictures to see the difference.
Medications do not cure either shingles or herpes. Treatment is mainly done to improve the symptoms. For instance, taking antiviral drugs may help treat a shingles eye contagious infection.
What causes shingles? Risk factors
Anyone can get shingles but the disease is predominant in older people, those above the age of 60 – 80 years of age. Complications of shingles are most likely to occur in the older lot. Seniors also risk bacterial infections during an outbreak. This is not to mention the other diseases that can take advantage of a weakened immune system.
Risk factors of shingles include the following.
Our bodies are usually able to keep invading pathogens from causing harm. This is in fact the reason why shingles doesn’t often occur in healthy adults and young people. Any factor or condition that may end up compromising the immune system is a potential shingles trigger.
It is common for body systems to become less efficient or entirely shut down as we age. In one way or the other, less efficiently working systems make it harder for the body to keep free from infections and invasions.
When you have a chronic disease, it is inevitable that significant resources in the immune system will be dedicated to keeping the disease in control. This leaves potential infections such as latent herpes zoster virus partly unattended to. Other than the diseases themselves, medications and treatment options such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy leave the immune system very weakened.
It is important to remember that you cannot have shingles if you have never had chicken pox. But since chicken pox mostly occurs in children and young adults, many of us may not recall ever having it. Pregnant women are advised to get tested for chicken pox antibodies. Although shingles is almost entirely not additionally harmful during pregnancy, chicken pox is potentially dangerous.
Can stress cause shingles
Stress is associated with many things, including obesity, heart diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure. Technically, stress doesn’t cause any of these conditions. What it does is weaken the immune system and in the process predispose the body to an array of diseases and infections.
So can stress cause shingles? Even healthy younger adults have to deal with stress from time to time. But not commonly will you see that lot dealing with shingles. Why is this so?
If you already have some immune issues, sudden shock or prolonged emotional stress disorganizes how your body works. Blood sugar levels may fluctuate, you may stop taking care of your health, and other consequences along these lines. In the long run, the immune system will become weakened, thus providing the necessary opportunity for the herpes zoster virus to become reactivated.
How is shingles rash treated?
Is there a test for shingles? Before treatment, diagnosis will be necessary. Your doctor may recognize shingles from its symptoms. For confirmation, a scraping of blisters may be taken to be examined under a microscope in the lab.
Antiviral drugs and pain relievers are the main medications used for shingles treatment. Like other viruses, varicella-zoster virus cannot be fully flushed out of the body. Doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants, anticonvulsants and analgesics especially for severe cases. These work best when used as medication for shingles nerve pain. For shingles in ear treatment, corticosteroids may be used to reduce inflammation. Severe cases call for physiotherapy because shingles in the ear can cause a loss of balance.
Over the counter medication for shingles and home treatments may also help. For example, calamine lotion works by drying out shingles blisters and reducing itchiness. A cool compress may reduce pain, relieve itchiness and keep affected areas clean to avoid bacterial infections. Essential oils and oatmeal baths restore skin moisture and relieve symptoms like itch and pain.
Shingles vaccines can also be taken advantage of. Today, there are two vaccines which have been approved. These include Zostavax and Shingrix. Zostavax is a live vaccine while Shingrix is a nonliving vaccine. Live vaccines are not always good options for people with weakened immune systems. A shingles vaccine brings the most benefits in shingles in adults over 60 years of age. Note that vaccines do not necessarily prevent or cure a disease. They work by preventing severe symptoms or complications.
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