Shingles are caused by recurrent attacks ofa latent virus - varicella zoster, which is classified under herpes family. Varicella is the causative agent for chicken pox, especially in children. It has been observed that individuals who suffer from chicken poxmay sometimes develop symptomatic episodes of virus reactivation, due to tendency of this pathogento stay dormant in certain nerves of the body. Upon stimulation, the virus can become active and lead to shingles. If any person has ever had chicken pox, there is always a likelihood of experiencing shingles.
What Causes Shingles?
Any individual who is infected with chicken pox can pass on this virus to another person in close physical contact. It should be kept in mind that varicella virus is highly contagious and anyone who has an active rash of shingles can pass it on to other individuals with lower or compromised immunity; however, the newly infected person will develop chicken pox and not shingles. Make sure to avoid contact with pregnant women, younger children or elderly members of the family if you have open sores or weeping ulcers.
Keep in mind that even though varicella zoster virus belongs to the class of herpes virus, it does not cause herpes or genital rash. These are caused by sexually transmitted herpes viruses.
Risk Factors for Shingles
Age is one of the major triggers that may leads to the reactivation of dormant varicella zoster virus. With the progression of age, a decrease in immunity is likely to occur, which in turn can activate the dormant virus and leads to shingles. According to one study, the risk of developing recurrent episodes of shingles is 10times higher in elderly population over the age of 60 years who were once exposed to chicken pox.
2. Overall Health Conditions
Some diseases such as AIDS and cancer can decrease the immunity because of which shingles virus becomes active. Consequently, the infected person will develop painful vesicles and papules in the area of distribution of the involved nerves.
Immunosuppressant drugs such as steroids and hormones can suppress the natural immunity in our body, which can increase the chances of developing shingles.
4. Maternal Encounter
Mothers, who encountered chicken pox in their late pregnancy or just at around the delivery period, are likely to pass on the virus to their newborns, later the children can develop chicken pox. Usually, the chicken pox is followed by shingles at an early age sometimes even before the age of five attributing mainly to their compromised immunity.
5. Unvaccinated Individuals
Children who were not vaccinated or did not complete their course of immunization are at higher risk of developing shingles.
6. Physical and Emotional Stress
People with chronic anxiety disorder are likely to encounter shingles. This is because stress releases chemicals that can decrease the immunity, leading to reactivation of dormant viruses.
7. Bone Marrow Transplants
Bone marrow surgeries are usually followed by large doses of immune compromising drugs that may increase the chances of reactivating varicella zoster infection.
8. Organ Transplant
One of the consequences of any major transplantation procedure is to maintain a state of low immunity. This is done to decrease the chances of organ rejection. Yet at the same time, compromised immunity increases the chances of infection.
Is Shingles Contagious?
If an individual has suffered from chicken pox, he is definitely not at risk of developing shingles from an infected contact. On the other hand, an individual who has not yet suffered from chicken pox is at risk of developing shingles, this is because shingle blisters contain live virus that are readily transferred to the healthy contacts.
How to Treat Shingles
Unfortunately there is no cure available for the permanent management of shingles, but prevention and palliative care can be taken. The condition itself remits in a few weeks, but still visiting a general physician is important as it keeps the person away from possible complications.
Usually, medications like pain killers and antiviral can be taken for shingles.
- Pain killing medication
Certain painkillers can help deal with the pain caused by blisters in shingles. Paracetamol is the most common pain killer used, which can be obtained without prescription. It must be made sure that the dose is taken carefully.
NSAIDS: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin can be taken to counter pain. But the doses must be taken as per suggested recommendations to prevent ulcers and liver disorders. Note that pregnant females and asthmatics should avoid using it.
Opioids: Opioids are used to manage severe pain associated with nerve involvement, which is mostly seen in elderly population.
Anti-depressants: One of the many uses of anti-depressants is in the treatment of pain, examples include tricyclic anti-depressants.
Anticonvulsants: Sometimes gabapentin and other anticonvulsants are prescribed to these patients in order to aid nerve pain.
- Antiviral medicines
Antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir are prescribed to stop viral replication. Although they do not kill the virus itself, these drugs are helpful in limiting the spread.
Also, these agents are used to prevent any further complications, such as neuralgia, prolonged disease, etc. There are some side effects associated with the treatment, such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and so on.
Older patients, usually above 50, are prescribed anti-viral agents more often.In addition, when pain becomes unbearable, anti-viral along with a strong pain killer may be prescribed.
Some steps can be taken to relieve the symptoms of shingles. These include keeping the body as clean as possible. This reduces the risk of rash spreading or becoming infected with bacterial agents.
- Wearing lose fitted clothes can help reduce irritation, also make sure that the material of your clothes does not stick to your body, which increases the chances of spreading the rash to normal skin. You can also use cold compresses and calamine lotion to help in the management of rash.
- Prevent topical antibiotics and dressing patches, as it will keep the rash wet and may slow the blister healing. Corn starch can help dry the blisters, and any crusts on blisters can be cleaned using burrows solution.
- Avoid scratching the blisters and use an anti-inflammatory cream to prevent swelling on blisters.
- Chicken pox vaccine: These vaccines are given to new-born babies and also to adults who have never encountered chicken pox before. Since shingles often follow chicken pox, it is likely that prevention of chicken pox will also prevent shingles.
- Shingles vaccine: Varicella-zoster vaccines are also available for old patients in order to prevent any complications of the virus.
How to Prevent Shingles
None of the vaccines guarantee that the disease will not occur, but they are a reliable source of prevention. Also keep in mind that shingles occur because of compromised immunity, therefore keeping a healthy body is sufficient to prevent them. In case you will catch them, take good sanitary measures to stop it from spreading and to help heal it quicker.