What is Zoster?
Herpes zoster (or simply zoster), commonly known as shingles and also known as zona, is a viral disease characterized by a painful skin rash with blisters in a limited area on one side of the body, often in a stripe. The initial infection with varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes the acute (short-lived) illness chickenpox which generally occurs in children and young people. Once an episode of chickenpox has resolved, the virus is not eliminated from the body but can go on to cause shingles—an illness with very different symptoms—often many years after the initial infection. Herpes zoster is not the same disease as herpes simplex despite the name similarity (both the varicella zoster virus and herpes simplex virus belong to the same viral subfamily Alphaherpesvirinae).
Shingles can be extremely uncomfortable, and can cause you to feel surprisingly ill. However, it is usually not a serious condition and, if treated early, the risk of developing other complications can be reduced. More severe episodes of shingles can lead to a condition known as postherpectic neuralgia. Shingles typically affects older people or those with weak immune systems.
The symptoms and signs of shingles may include:
- Feeling slightly unwell with pain and tenderness prior to the appearance of the rash
- Pain, burning, tingling, itching numbness or extreme sensitivity in a certain part of the body (always affects one side of the body)
- A red rash which quickly develops into blisters
- Upset stomach
The rash can affect any part of the body but is usually in one specific area on one side of the body only. It may affect the head, limbs, or around one side of the chest or abdomen. The rash may also affect the upper cheek or the side of the forehead and, potentially seriously, it may involve the eye area.
What Causes Shingles?
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. The only way that you can develop shingles is if you have previously had chickenpox. Varicella-zoster belongs to group of viruses called herpes viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes. Once you have had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in the nervous system for years.
Shingles occurs when this virus is reactivated in one particular nerve root and travels along the nerve towards the skin. The area of skin served by that particular nerve is affected and this is how the rash covers such a clearly defined area of skin only. Most times an episode of shingles is due a weakened immune system or stress. Physical contact with those who never had chickenpox, have weak immune systems, newborn babies or pregnant women should be avoided.
Help for Shingles
The diagnosis of shingles is determined by the pattern of the rash which is the area that is covered and the blister-like form of the rash. If the rash develops near the eyes, it could lead to an infection of the cornea. Prompt treatment is necessary to reduce the risk of further complications.
Additional complications that may occur as a result of shingles include postherpectic neuralgia, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and other neurological problems. In addition, shingles can cause hearing problems, temporary or permanent blindness as well as bacterial skin infections.
Shingles is best treated immediately to alleviate the pain and reduce the risk of other complications. Prescription medications that can provide relief include oral antiviral medications. Corticosteroids may also be prescribed to reduce swelling and pain associated with shingles. In addition, painkillers, antidepressants as well as anticonvulsants may also be prescribed to help treat shingles. Topical ointments such as calamine lotion can soothe the affected area.
There are certain vaccines available to prevent chickenpox as well as shingles. The varicella virus vaccine is a childhood immunization administered between 12 and 18 months. It is also recommended for older children and adults who have never had chickenpox. If you still contract chickenpox after receiving the vaccination it is generally less severe. A vaccine called Zostavax is available to help prevent shingles in adults over 60 years and older, and has dramatically reduced the risk of developing this condition in susceptible individuals.
Natural treatments can also help to boost the immune system which is especially important when you develop shingles. Treatments such as herbal and homeopathic remedies are gentle to use and improve your overall health and wellbeing without the risk of side effects. Use herbs such as Hypoxis rooperi (extract of African Potato) and Viscum album to strengthen the immune system.
Astragalus membranaceus acts a rejuvenating tonic and also helps to combat fatigue. Olea europea (extract of olive leaf) and Echinacea are two very useful herbs that have well known anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.
Once you have developed shingles, you may feel tired, run down and have significant pain. Remember to take good care of yourself. Clean the affected area and apply cool compresses to relieve the pain. Relax in a tub of lukewarm water and use calamine lotion to ease the itching. Increase your intake of vitamins to boost your immune system and rest as much as possible.