Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Shingles affects the nerves and can lead to numbness, tingling or pain in a small area of skin. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox will have this virus in their body for life and may develop shingles as an adult if their immune system becomes weakened from illness or stress, such as cancer treatment or HIV/AIDS.
First symptoms include fever, headaches, chills and sensitivity to light, which are systemic symptoms that occur even before rashes start to appear. This is known as the prodromal stage. A telltale sign that this may not just be the typical flu is when there is burning or tingling pain that may be accompanied with itchiness; occasionally, it includes numbness on one side of the body. It is reported that rashes typically start to develop anywhere from one to five days after one starts to feel the tingling or burning sensation on the skin. These rashes cluster along nerve pathways, and may be accompanied by sharp pain in the area of the rash.
After a few days, these rashes turn into fluid-filled blisters that look similar to chickenpox. There may also be new blisters popping out over the next several days. While it is possible, these blisters usually do not spread over your whole body, but is instead limited to mostly the the torso and face. This is the stage when one is most infectious, and direct contact with the active blisters should be avoided. Items contaminated with fluid from the blisters should be thoroughly washed or disinfected as the virus can be transferred to others in this way. It is also recommended that scratching of the blisters is kept to a minimum, as this may cause scarring of the skin.
About a week to 10 days later, the open blisters start to ooze fluid and slowly dry up and crust over. This is when scabs start to form. This stage typically lasts for another one to two weeks. There is now less risk of spreading the virus. However, one should continue to be vigilant in practicing infection control, and good practices include washing hands after touching the blistered area.
Shingles can weaken a person’s immunity making them more susceptible to other illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis. The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia, which causes mild to extreme pain that lasts for months or even years after the blisters from shingles heal.
The first step to treating shingles is recognizing them early on so you can start medication quickly. If you suspect that you might have shingles, see your doctor right away for an exam and diagnosis!
Medical treatment of shingles include:
- The most effective early onset treatment would be to use prescription antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, which doctors commonly prescribe. These help to reduce the duration and severity of the infection.
- Topical ointments for relieving shingles that typically contain topical acyclovir, lidocaine, or capsaicin
- Lotions containing calamine can be commonly found over the counter. These can be used on open lesions to reduce pain and pruritus
- According to studies (Stankus et al., 2000), relief for shingles pain can be found through administering anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants, corticosteroids or numbing agents.
- The application of a wet compress to the painful and inflamed area of the skin.
- Oral intake or topical applications of antihistamines to relieve the itchiness
While medical treatments are certainly a viable treatment option, there are also several natural and home remedies for shingles that can help with relieving symptoms.
- Essential oils such as chamomile oil, eucalyptus oil, and tea tree oil are sometimes applied topically, helping to relieve symptoms through their anti-inflammatory properties
- Witch hazel cream is also commonly used to reduce inflammation and itchiness
- The rash should be kept clean and dry. Loosely bound dressing should be used for protection. Loose fitting clothes are also recommended for optimal comfort.
- Using cool water to bathe helps not only to keep sores and blisters clean, but also to relieve itchiness and prevent the urge to scratch.
- Oatmeal or baking soda can also be added to cool bath water, helping to moisten the skin and to soothe sensitive and inflamed skin
- Improvement of the immune function by ingesting vitamin supplements such as vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc, and selenium.
- Big scale lifestyle changes such as living smoke free and managing stress. These are important changes that can help to boost the body’s immunity and improve it’s natural healing.
Shingles is a serious condition that can be painful and uncomfortable. It is important to note that people who get shingles have a higher risk of getting postherpetic neuralgia which causes pain for months or years after the blisters from shingles has healed. Additionally, more serious conditions such as pneumonia may develop due to weakened immunity caused by shingles. It is therefore important to seek out treatment as soon as possible. There are a variety of treatment options from medical treatment to natural remedies and lifestyle adjustments that can provide immediate help with pain and itchiness and reducing the duration and severity of the infection. It would be best if you discussed possible options with your doctor or pharmacist to help find the best solution for you.
Crichton-Stuart, C. (2018, June 14). 10 natural treatments and home remedies for shingles. Medical News Today
Stankus, S. J., Dlugopolski, M., & Packer, D. (2000, April 15). Management of herpes Zoster (Shingles) And Postherpetic Neuralgia. American Family Physician