What is Herpes Zoster?
Herpes Zoster, commonly referred to as shingles, is a viral skin infection that causes itchy and painful rashes that are usually found on one side of the body. What is interesting about this viral infection is that it is caused by the same varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox. Once the body fights off chickenpox and the individual recovers, the virus becomes inactive and moves towards the tissues near the brain and the spinal cord. When this virus reactivates due to any reason, it leads to a Herpes Zoster infection.
While Herpes Zoster is not a life-threatening disease, in rare cases, it can lead to severe complications like loss of eyesight, permanent damage to nerves or bacterial skin infections. Although very painful, prompt treatment can help in reducing the duration and the severity of the infection.
Herpes Zoster Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of Herpes Zoster are usually observed only on one side of the infected person’s body and cause intense pain and discomfort. It is impossible to ignore the Herpes Zoster symptoms, and although there is no cure, medical treatment is essential to prevent complications.
- Numbness or pain: tingling sensations and constant pain in the affected region are often the first symptoms to manifest in case of infection.
- Itching: an intense urge to itch the affected skin is also a common sign.
- Rashes and/or blisters: painful red rashes or fluid-filled blisters.
- Fever and headache: some persons also suffer from headache and high body temperature when infected.
- Stomach upset: less common but is observed in some cases.
If one or more of these symptoms are experienced, it is best to call a doctor and ascertain the best course of treatment.
Who is at Risk?
There are a few Herpes Zoster risk factors that greatly increase the likelihood of someone contracting the infection. Still, these are in no way exhaustive, and many infected persons do not fall under any of the following high-risk categories.
- Over 50 years of age: older individuals over the age of 50 are the most likely to suffer from Herpes Zoster.
- Suffering from certain diseases: individuals who live with HIV/AIDS or cancer are more likely to be infected as they significantly weaken the immune system.
- Cancer treatment: chemotherapy or other forms of radiation therapy in the long term can also lower immunity.
- Some medications: prolonged use of certain medicines like steroids that affect your immunity.
- Stress: periods of elevated physical or mental stress can cause damage to your body functioning and lower your immunity against the virus.
Herpes Zoster Causes
Herpes Zoster is caused by the varicella-zoster virus but not on the first exposure. When a person first comes in contact with the virus, he contracts chickenpox, but after recovery, the virus lies in a dormant state in the person’s nervous system. When the immune system is weakened due to any reason, the virus is reactivated, and it follows the nerves to the skin where it causes shingles.
The exact reason for the reactivation of the virus is unknown. Still, it is more predominant in older people and individuals with weak immune systems, presumably due to the weakening of the body’s defenses against pathogens. The disease gets its name from the viral group that the varicella-zoster belongs to; the herpes viruses. It is important to note that this virus is in no way related to the other herpes viruses that cause cold sores and genital warts. Unlike the varicella-zoster virus, these are transmitted through sexual activity.
How is Herpes Zoster Diagnosed?
Herpes Zoster diagnosis is made based on the reported symptoms and a thorough physical examination of the patient by a primary care physician. The most important part of diagnosis is to ascertain whether or not the person has earlier contracted and recovered from chickenpox as the Herpes Zoster infection cannot occur in individuals who have not previously been exposed to the virus.
A Herpes Zoster test can also be conducted by testing the sores or rashes that have developed on the skin to ascertain the presence of the virus. This is done by testing the scabs or lesions in the infected regions of the body.
How is Herpes Zoster Treated?
Herpes Zoster Treatment involves a two-pronged approach to eliminate the virus in the body while at the same time helping the individual deal with the pain and the discomfort caused due to the infection.
- Anti-viral medication: anti-viral Herpes Zoster medicines may be prescribed to help fight off the virus and control the spread of the infection.
- Pain medication: the doctor may prescribe anti-convulsant medicines or even antidepressants to help bring down the pain. The usual over the counter pain-killers may also be prescribed.
- Medicated cream: lotions may be prescribed for topical application to assist with the healing of the rashes and to reduce discomfort.
- Cool compresses: using a towel dipped in cool water and applying it on the affected area can help provide relief from the pain and itching.
- Other remedies: Several remedies exist such as colloidal oatmeal creams or medicated baths that can help soothe the irritation and discomfort in the infected region.
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How to prevent Herpes Zoster?
Herpes Zoster is a viral infection, and as of now, no Herpes Zoster cure exists. It is also very difficult to prevent. However, there are Herpes Zoster vaccines available that can significantly lower the risks of being infected. Vaccines are available for both chickenpox as well as shingles. Although these do not one hundred per cent guarantee that you will not contract either disease, they greatly reduce the severity of the infection in individuals and also reduce the chances of complications such as post-herpetic neuralgia which is an extremely painful condition that develops as a result of herpes zoster.