Shingles: Causes, Myths, and Treatments

Much is often said about shingles, but what is it exactly? Shingles is a common virus that often affects the elderly, although it is not always limited to the older generation. It is often referred to as the adult form of chicken pox, and indeed it has many similarities to this common childhood illness.

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Shingles Causes

Both illnesses are caused by the varicella zoster virus, which causes chicken pox in children and teens, and shingles in adults. It rarely cause shingles in a young person. When someone recovers from the childhood illness, the virus goes dormant in the body, and may manifest itself later as shingles, when age or circumstances cause the immune system to regress.

Much like its childhood variation, shingles causes a painful rash located in a certain area. Other symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Flu-like symptoms, without a fever
  • Itching or tingling
  • Fluid-filled blisters, which later crust over

Other uncommon symptoms may also include:

  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Change in vision
  • Unclear thoughts
  • Spreading rash

Shingles Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about shingles. Many people think that they are protected against this disease by their age alone, due to the common myth that only the elderly can contract it. However, persons of any age may contract shingles. Whether or not they may actually get it depends on their risk factors.

Unlike its childhood counterpart, shingles itself is not contagious. However, the virus may still be passed to someone who is not protected against chicken pox.

Additionally, many people do not understand the seriousness of the illness. Although it is not known to be fatal, shingles can lead to blindness or other complications if left untreated. It is best to address this disease as soon as possible.

Shingles Treatments

Shingles treatments have a two-pronged focus: To treat the disease itself, and pain management.

As with any illness, early diagnosis and treatment is most effective. Several antiviral drugs help combat the disease, such as:

  • acyclovir
  • valacyclovir
  • famciclovir

These drugs are not an immediate cure, but they do help to shorten the duration and lessen the severity of the illness.

Shingles causes a rash which may be painful or lead to incessant itching. Simple remedies such as calamine lotion and wet compresses may help the sensations to subside.

The pain management addresses more than just the pain experienced during an attack of shingles. The disease can also leave lingering nerve pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which can be excruciating.

To combat this pain, there are a variety of pain prescriptions, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants. Qutenza is a fairly recent drug approved by the FDA takes the problem from a slightly different angle, using a synthetic form of capsaicin, which is the same substance that gives a chili pepper its familiar burn. Although there are similar over-the-counter products, the FDA notes that it is the first of its kind that they have reviewed.

The drug works via a topical application given by the doctor. It is applied using a patch on the affected area, after applying an anesthetic. Patients have reported a burning sensation during the procedure, but most did not stop the treatment, and afterwards, reported a significant decrease in pain levels. Qutenza is not a cure for PHN, but it may be combined with other therapies to provide relief to patients.

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