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What is Shingles?

Shingles is an infectious skin disease caused by the virus 'Herpes zoster'. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you have suffered from chickenpox in childhood, the virus may still remain in an inactive form in your nerve cells. Later, as you grow older or when your immunity becomes weak, the virus can get reactivated, come out of the nerve cells and react with the body cells causing shingles. If you are vaccinated with the chickenpox vaccine, then chances of suffering from chickenpox, and later with shingles, is greatly lessened. Shingles are rarely life-threatening. In around 90 % of patients, the attack normally subsides within a month after the appearance of the first symptoms. Most people only have one or two attacks in their lifetime.

Elderly people, in particular, may continue to feel intense pain even after the attack seems to have subsided.

Causes of Shingles

Shingles are more likely to develop in people with a weakened immune system and those who are over 50 years old. Shingles may also develop in people who are diagnosed with cancer and are on chemotherapy which may weaken the immune system. People with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or suffering from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), or undergoing radiation treatment, can get shingles because of a weakened immune system. Although shingles is an infectious disease, it is not a communicable disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

The first symptom of shingles is pain, burning and tingling on one side of the body. This is followed by painful red rashes on your skin that blisters. Other symptoms may include itchiness, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, and difficulty in urinating. Rashes can appear on your trunk, face, mouth, ears and near your eyes causing swollen eyelids that may cause vision damage.

Treatment for Shingles

Consult your dermatologist immediately when you observe the above symptoms. You may be prescribed antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir. To reduce the pain, acetaminophen and ibuprofen may be given. Lotions such as Caladryl will reduce the itchiness. Ice packs over the rashes might offer you relief from pain.

There are vaccines available to treat shingles, but these are prescribed only for people who are above 60 years. These vaccines are preventive medication but are not as effective as a treatment for shingles. The side-effects of these vaccines include headache and redness or swelling at the injection site. Cortisone is also given to reduce inflammation.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are finding a variety of new methods to treat shingles. Consult your dermatologist for more information on shingles vaccines and treatment option

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