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Condition. Shingles (Herpes Zoster)

By Editorial Team (2)
January 31, 2022
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What are herpes shingles?

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes a blistering, painful rash. Shingles can occur anywhere on the body, but they most often develop on one side of the chest or torso. A virus called varicella-zoster is responsible for one of the causes of shingles. This is the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox.

Once a person has been ill with chickenpox, varicella-zoster stays dormant or inactive in the body’s nerve tissues. Later in life, the virus can reactivate, causing shingles lesions to appear.

Shingles is not a life-threatening illness, but it can be extremely painful. There is a vaccine available to help reduce your risk of developing the condition. Getting treatment early can help shorten an episode of shingles and decrease your risk of associated complications.

Herpes Zoster causes

Varicella-zoster is the same virus responsible for chickenpox and herpes zoster causes. Any individual who has had chickenpox can eventually develop shingles. After a person has had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster remains in the body, inactive in the tissues of the nervous system.

If the virus reactivates, it travels along the pathways of the nerves to the skin, and the shingles rash erupts. Doctors are not sure why some people develop shingles. Some of the herpes zoster causes may be lowered resistance to infection as we age.

Herpes zoster develops more frequently in the elderly and those with weakened immunity. Varicella-zoster belongs to the family of viruses known as herpes. These viruses are also responsible for causing genital herpes and cold sores. The virus that causes herpes zoster and chickenpox is not the same as the one responsible for genital ulcers and cold sores, even though shingles are also called herpes zoster.

Are shingles contagious?

When a person has shingles, they can infect others who have not had chickenpox with the varicella-zoster virus. This will cause chickenpox, not shingles, in the person who has been exposed. This usually only occurs through close contact with the shingles lesions.

However, chickenpox might be dangerous in some people, so if you have shingles, you should avoid physical contact with others until the lesions form scabs and you are no longer contagious. Chickenpox is especially dangerous in:

  • Pregnant women
  • Newborns
  • People who have a weakened immune system

Shingles risks

Any individual who has had chickenpox can develop an outbreak of shingles. Currently, most people living in the United States now adults had chickenpox as children. However, this was before the development and routine use of the chickenpox vaccine. Other causes of shingles may include specific factors that may increase your shingles risks, this includes the following:

  • Age: If you are over the age of 50, you are at increased risk for shingles
  • Other medical conditions: If you have other diseases, like HIV that impair your immune system, you may be at increased risk for shingles
  • Medical treatments: If you are receiving treatments like chemotherapy, you may be more at risk for an outbreak of shingles
  • Medications: If you take steroid medications, you may be at increased risk of shingles development

Prevalence

Shingles are widespread in the United States. Almost one-third of the population will develop the condition at some time in their lifetime. Approximately one million cases of shingles occur each year in the U.S. The causes of shingles are extremely prevalent in persons who have had chickenpox, including children, but the risk of the disease increases with age. Approximately 50% of cases occur in people who are at least 60 years old. You are at increased risk of developing shingles if you:

  • Take immunosuppressive medications such as corticosteroids. These drugs are given for conditions like some types of arthritis, lupus and after an organ transplantation
  • Have a medical condition that impairs your body’s immune system. These are conditions like HIV and certain types of cancer such as lymphoma and leukemia

Most of the time, people who get shingles only have one episode of the illness, but it can occur twice or even three times throughout a person’s life.

Complications

An episode of shingles usually resolves over a few weeks, but shingles can result in lasting and sometimes severe complications. These may include:

  • Infection: If the blisters from the shingles rash do not heal, they may become infected.
  • Postherpetic neuralgia: This is a condition characterized by the severe pain of shingles continuing after the rash has resolved. It develops when the nerves have been damaged, and the pain sensation becomes exaggerated.
  • Neurological dysfunction: Shingles may lead to brain inflammation (encephalitis), balance or hearing difficulty, or paralysis of a portion of the face. The dysfunction symptoms depend on which nerves the shingles virus is affected.
  • Vision loss: When shingles develop around or in the eye, it can lead to eye infections, resulting in loss of vision.

Shingles are a result of the very same virus that causes chickenpox. While it is contagious to adults who have not had chickenpox virus and could affect them with chickenpox and not shingles.

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