We all know about chickenpox. It is one of those diseases which it is better to get early in life rather than later in life since the symptoms in young people are fairly mild compared to older people, who are sometimes fatal. Additionally, since the disease only infects people once—that is, they develop an immunity to it—they don’t need to worry about it for the rest of their lives.
Or do they?
Chickenpox can visit people during the latter half of their lives as well as the first, as Herpes Zoster or “shingles”. The virus presents as stripes of blistered lesions—aggravated tissue, appearing red and raw to the touch—in lines down one side of the body. The kicker is that it can spend decades lurking within our nervous system until it activates, following a time when our bodies are particularly vulnerable.
It is estimated that 1 in 3 people develop this rash within their lifetime. A percentage contacts it as young adults or teenagers, when the effects aren’t as severe, but the rest develop it later. For people fifty years or older, complications can cause severe injury, and in the worst-case scenario (when it is one of a cascade of diseases), it means that it can contribute to death. It is therefore vital to talk to a doctor or GP as soon as you notice any adverse changes in your body. If you are in the UK, you can search for an online GP service.
How To Spot Shingles
This is the list of things to look out for and to communicate to your doctor:
- A rash on one side of the body
- Pain or tingling sensations that develop before the rash
- Blisters forming over the rash area
- Burning sensations
What Do Shingles Do?
Complications from shingles may cause swelling in the lungs, brain, and liver, leading to pneumonia, amongst other things. Possible other complications include:
- Chronic Encephalitis – a swelling of the brain
- Aseptic Meningitis – Which affects the brain and spinal cord
- Polyradiculitis – An inflammation of the nerve endings
- Autonomic dysfunction – A dysfunction of the nervous system
- Motor neuropathy – Damage to nerves that regulate bodily functions
- Hemiparesis – An inability to move the side of the body affected.
If shingles reach the eyes, there’s a risk of scarring, and vision loss. Lesions that form around the face can damage nerves and cause facial paralysis, while blisters around the ears can cause hearing loss, vertigo, and tinnitus.
How are Shingles Treated?
Antiviral medications are the most commonly prescribed for shingles. This helps address rashes, allowing them to heal faster and reducing the pain caused by them. Corticosteroids and analgesics may be used in addition to antivirals as a remedial measure. Corticosteroids can help to shrink the effects of shingles, while analgesics help to reduce pain.
In an ideal scenario, the rash and its side effects will disappear within two to four weeks. Past this time, it can develop into postherpetic neuralgia, so it’s best to catch it quickly and start treatment immediately.