Herpes zoster, also known as shingles, is an infection of the skin that shows up as a severe and often painful rash. It is caused by reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the same one that causes chickenpox in youngsters. (After a childhood case of chickenpox, the virus is not completely cleared by the immune system. It remains dormant in portions of the spinal or cranial nerves.)
Shingles is most common in people over 50. By the time they reach the age of 85, about one in two people have had an attack. People with weakened immune systems are much more likely than healthy seniors to develop shingles and to have a more severe case.
The shingles sufferer may have other signs of illness in the days before the skin rash appears, including
- fever or chills
- digestive upset
- difficulty urinating
They may also feel an itch, tingling sensation or pain in the skin where the rash eventually appears. The blisters usually are confined to one side of the body, especially on the trunk.
Herpes zoster blisters last about five days. Until they scab over, their contents can transmit chickenpox to anyone who is susceptible to it.
Older people who get shingles are more prone than younger people to suffer pain under the areas of skin supplied by the infected nerves. This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia and frequently lasts for weeks to months. The pain may be constant or come and go, and while it is not usually severe it can be a major inconvenience.
Keeping the skin clean while the rash is active is very important treatment measure for shingles. A physician may prescribe a special cleansing solution or recommend an antibacterial soap or ointment.
A doctor may also suggest you take an antiviral drug, such as acyclovir or famcyclovir, to help shorten the period of skin rash. In addition, some people require analgesics to help alleviate the pain.
If you suffer from postherpetic neuralgia, a doctor may prescribe an ointment or skin patch containing an analgesic, anesthetic or anti-inflammatory medication. Interestingly, a low dose of certain antidepressant or anticonvulsant medications also seems to help alleviate the pain.