Herpes zoster, commonly known as Shingles, is an infectious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. It mainly occurs in adulthood causing red blisters on the skin. It usually appears on the chest or belly region, but may also affect the eyes or ears.
This disease affects only people who have had chickenpox, and more commonly appears after the age of 60, and is treated with anti-viral drugs such as acyclovir and painkillers prescribed by a doctor to relieve pain and heal the wounds on the skin faster.
Herpes Zoster symptoms
The most characteristic symptoms of Herpes Zoster are:
- Blisters and redness that affects just one side of the body, because they follow the location of one of the bodies nerves, traveling its length and forming a path of blisters and wounds through the thorax, back or belly;
- Itching in the affected area;
- Pain, numbness or burning sensation in the affected region;
- Low fever, between 37 e 38ºC.
The diagnosis of shingles is usually made based on the clinical evaluation of the signs and symptoms of the patient, and the observation of the lesions on the skin by a doctor. Other diseases that have similar symptoms to those of shingles are impetigo, contact dermatitis, dermatitis herpetiformis and also herpes simplex, and therefore the diagnosis should always be made by the doctor.
Photos of Herpes Zoster
Is Herpes Zoster contagious?
Herpes zoster is a contagious disease for people who have never had chickenpox or who have not been vaccinated since they are diseases caused by the same virus. Therefore, children or other people who have never had chickenpox should stay away from people with herpes zoster and not have contact with their clothes, bedding and towels, for example.
People who have had chickenpox when in contact with a person with herpes zoster are protected and do not usually develop the disease.
Can Herpes Zoster reoccur?
Shingles can reoccur at any time, in people who have ever had chickenpox or even if you have had herpes zoster before, because the virus remains 'dormant', that is, inactive in the body for many years. So, when there your immune system is weakened the virus can replicate again causing shingles. Strengthening the immune system can be a good strategy to prevent its reappearance.
Treatment for Herpes Zoster
Treatment for shingles is done by taking anti-viral medication such as Aciclovir, Fanciclovir or Valaciclovir to decrease virus multiplication, thereby reducing blisters, the duration and disease severity. It may also be necessary to use painkillers to relieve pain caused by the blisters. Your doctor may prescribe:
- Acyclovir 800 mg: 5 times a day for 7 to 10 days
- Fanciclovir 500 mg: 3 times a day for 7 days
- Valacyclovir 1000 mg: 3 times a day for 7 days
However, the choice of the medicine and its use may be different, being at the medical discretion this prescription.
Home remedy for Herpes Zoster
A good home treatment to aid the treatment indicated by your doctor is to strengthen your immune system by drinking echinacea tea and consuming foods rich in lysine, such as fish daily.
During treatment you should also:
- Wash the affected area daily with warm water and neutral soap without scrubbing, drying well to prevent bacteria from developing on the skin;
- Wear comfortable, loose clothing and cotton to allow the skin to breathe;
- Place a cold pack of chamomile over the affected area to relieve the itching;
- Do not apply ointments or creams over the blisters, preventing the skin from becoming irritated.
It is important to remember that to be most effective, treatment should be started up to 72 hours after the appearance of blisters on the skin.
The most common complication of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia, which is the continuation of pain for several weeks or months after the disappearance of the blisters on the skin. This complication is more frequent in people over 60 and is characterized by a more intense pain than in the period when the wounds were active, leaving the person unable to continue their normal activities.
Another less common complication occurs when the virus hits the eye, causing inflammation in the cornea and vision problems, needing to be followed up by an ophthalmologist.
Other more rare problems that shingles can cause, depending on the affected site, are pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness or inflammation in the brain, for example. Only in rare cases, usually in very old people, over 80, and with the immune system very weakened, in case of AIDS, leukemia or cancer treatment, this disease can lead to death.
Herpes Zoster vaccine
The herpes zoster vaccine is the only effective way to prevent this disease and its complications and is recommended for adults over 60 years of age.
Ideally, this vaccine should be recommended by your doctor as it is not recommended for pregnant women and people who take corticosteroids or who already have a weakened immune system.
Who is more at risk?
Shingles only occurs in people who have ever had chickenpox in their lifetime. This is because the chickenpox virus can be lodged in the nerves of the body throughout life, and in some period where your immunity is weakened, it can reactivate in the most localized form of the nerve.
People who are at highest risk for developing shingles are those with:
- Over 60 years of age;
- Diseases that weaken the immune system, such as AIDS or lupus;
- Treatment of chemotherapy;
- Prolonged use of corticosteroids.
However, shingles can also occur in adults who are over stressed or who are recovering from an illness, such as severe flu or dengue because the immune system is weaker.