Shingles, also referred to as herpes zoster, is a viral infection of a nerve and the skin around it. The infection is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is also the same virus that causes chickenpox. For many people who have had chicken pox before, the shingles virus remains dormant in their bodies. It then reactivates later in life and causes a shingles rash.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), about one in three people in the United States will get shingles at some point in their lifetime. It is also estimated that half of all cases occur in adults aged 60 years and above. Shingles is not life-threatening, but it is always advisable to contact your healthcare provider immediately if you think you have shingles to discuss treatment.
Common symptoms of shingles
The first symptoms of shingles are severe tingling sensations or burning, itching, and numbness, which are followed by a rash that comes up on one side of your body or face. The rash begins with reddish bumps and then, in a few days, the bumps turn into fluid-filled blisters. You might also feel burning pain or stinging and itching.
Patients with shingles may also experience fever, nausea, chills, diarrhea, headache, muscle aches, a sore throat, and a feeling of tiredness.
An episode of shingles typically lasts around two to four weeks, but in some cases, the pain can last for a few more weeks once the rash disappears. It depends on an individual and if they have other risk factors.
Common treatments for shingles
There is no known cure for shingles, but three of the most common treatments for managing the symptoms exist. They include:
1. Antiviral medicines
Antiviral medicines such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex) are often the most effective treatments for shingles. The three drugs may ease the discomfort and make your symptoms stop sooner, especially if you start them within three days of the first symptom. They may also help prevent the extended pain that can happen later, called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
The medicine helps the blisters heal faster while preventing new blisters from developing too.
2. Pain medicine
Over-the-counter pain medications are prescribed by your doctor to help relieve pain and milder discomfort caused by the infection. They include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These medicines can also help you prevent postherpetic neuralgia, the burning pain that some patients get after the shingles rash clears.
Besides pain medication, the doctor may also prescribe antibacterial drugs if, in any case, you may develop a bacterial infection from the shingles rash.
3. Lifestyle and home remedies
Although antiviral medicines are considered effective for the treatment of shingles, there are other natural remedies you can incorporate to relieve pain and discomfort.
- Healing baths: A colloidal oatmeal bath (a lukewarm bath mixed with ground-up oatmeal) can ease pain from the blisters and calm itchiness in the affected area. The warm bath can also soothe the skin and reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
- Wet, cool compress: Applying a cool, moist compress on the blisters can help reduce itchiness and pain associated with a rash. You can do this by soaking a soft cloth in cool water, wringing the water out, and then applying the cloth to the blisters or rash.
- Soothing creams and lotions: Soothing lotions like calamine lotion can increase your comfort level by soothing irritated skin. It is advisable to use them sparingly as their heavy application prolongs the healing process, causes more irritation, and keeps sores from drying out.
- Dietary remedies: Evidently, a weakened immune system worsens any kind of infection or illness. So is the case with shingles. Some diets can strengthen your immune system and prevent the infection from spreading to other areas of your body. Such foods include leafy green vegetables, red meat, eggs, legumes, whole grains, chicken, and spinach.
Shingles is a common viral infection that only lasts about two to four weeks and is manageable through the right use of the above treatments. It is thoroughly advisable to contact a doctor or visit your nearest healthcare clinic if you notice any signs. The CDC also recommends that healthy adults aged 50 and older get vaccinated to reduce the risk of catching the infection.
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