Shingles is a painful condition which occurs when the Varicella Zoster virus is activated in the body. The Varicella Zoster also causes chicken pox, so any individual who has previously suffered from chicken pox is likely to have the virus in their system. If the virus is reactivated, it causes shingles, also known as herpes zoster.
Although the symptoms of shingles can be treated, they often last for a long time. As the condition can be extremely painful many people are keen to avoid it and often ask, how to prevent shingles?
Before individuals are aware they have shingles, they may begin to feel unwell and exhibit a temperature. During this time, people may feel fairly weak and may be more tired than they usually are. Following this, shingles can cause a range of symptoms, such as:
People with shingles often experience tingling, pain or burning before any rash becomes apparent. Similarly, shooting pains may occur and typically travel along nerve pathways, which are activated by the virus.
When blotches begin appearing on the skin, they generally affect just one side of the body. Whilst these blotches may not be painful in themselves, the patient’s discomfort may increase if and when blisters form. These usually affect the torso, back and/or chest and can be extremely itchy and uncomfortable.
In most cases, the blisters will pop or leak liquid, which may cause them to crust or scab. When this happens, the skin remains open until it heals and this can leave individuals vulnerable to a secondary infection. If bacteria is able to enter the body via open sores or blisters, the patient may contract a secondary infection and further treatment may be required.
Shingles occurs when the Varicella Zoster virus is reactivated in the patient’s body. As most adults already have the virus in their system due to experiencing chicken pox as a child, it’s not uncommon for them to experience shingles in later life.
Although the virus remains in an individual’s system, it is usually dormant and does not require any type of treatment. However, if the virus overpowers the patient’s immune system, it can be reactivated and shingles will occur.
When patients develop shingles, they may be prescribed antiviral medication by their physician. Although this will not generally cure the patient, these medications can help to limit the length of time they are unwell. In some cases, antiviral medication may also lessen the severity of shingles. In some cases, steroid medication can be prescribed to patients who have shingles, as this can help to reduce inflammation and minimize their symptoms. However, not all physicians support the use of steroid medication in the treatment of shingles and it may not be suitable for all patients.
For some patients, over-the-counter painkillers may be effective. Due to the level of pain associated with shingles, stronger painkillers may be required in some cases. As nerve pain is sometimes resistant to treatment, patients may even need an alternative form of medication. Some tricyclic antidepressants and anticonvulsants can also be used to relieve nerve pain and may be used to temporarily relieve the pain associated with shingles.
In order to reduce the pain as much as possible, patients should wear loose fitting clothes and ensure nothing else comes into contact with their skin. Sitting in a cool bath and applying a cold compress to the skin may help to minimize inflammation and can also help to reduce itching.
Cooling creams and gels can also be applied to the skin and these can help to relieve the pain associated with shingles. However, patients should obtain medical advice before using these types of products, particularly if they have blisters or open sores.
As well as relieving the patient’s symptoms, shingles treatment is aimed at minimizing the risk of complications. On-going pain, known as post-herpetic nerve pain, occurs after an episode of shingles and additional treatment may be required if patients develop this condition.
Although it may not always be possible to avoid shingles, there are steps individuals can take to try and prevent shingles from occurring. These may include:
If the Varicella Zoster virus is already in the patient’s system, it will be reactivated if the immune system is unable to suppress it. Due to this, patients may be able to prevent shingles by maintaining a healthy body and an effective immune system. Patients who are immunocompromised may be offered on-going medication which can reduce the risk of illness, and these could help to prevent shingles.
For some patients, the shingles vaccine may be appropriate. Whilst it may not prevent shingles in all cases, the vaccine could reduce the severity of the virus and prevent additional complications from occurring. Although this can be beneficial, the shingles vaccine is only usually offered to older people or those who are immunocompromised.
If patients have not yet had chicken pox, they may be eligible for the chicken pox vaccine. Whilst this vaccine will not rule out the possibility of shingles occurring in later life, it is possible that the chicken pox vaccine will reduce the individual’s chance of developing shingles and minimize the symptoms of the virus if it does occur.
As most adults have already experienced chicken pox, it may not be possible for them to prevent the virus using this type of vaccine. However, many children are now receiving the chicken pox vaccine and this could help to prevent shingles in the future.