Shingles is caused by the Varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. A typical case of shingles starts out as chicken pox as a child. You will contract the virus, break out in the spots, and hopefully in two weeks, be symptom free, but the VZV can lie dormant in your nervous system and 10-20% of people who have had Chicken Pox will go on to develop shingles.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
In the prodromal stage, between 2 and 5 days before a rash breaks out, you feel like you are getting the flu – fever, chills, nausea. You may also feel numbness, tingling, itching or pain on one side of your body or face. The VZV lies dormant in your nerve cells. The symptoms you feel on your body follow nerve pathways.
Small, clear fluid filled blisters appear in the eruptive stage. These blisters resemble chicken pox and follow the same nerve pathways where you may have already experienced itching, numbness, tingling and/or pain. These blisters can range from somewhat irritating to incredibly painful. They tend to appear in bands or clusters called dermatomes; an area on the skin where a single nerve cell provides sensation. Dermatomes are sort of like a road map of which nerves supply which areas of the body with sensation. In about 2 weeks, the blisters will become pus filled – your white blood cells hard at work – eventually dry up to form scabs. At this point, the blisters no longer contain the active virus. The blisters and inflamed area surrounding them can be uncomfortable for 3 to 5 weeks; most symptoms are resolved within 5 weeks with no lasting scars – unless the blisters were scratched open to become infected. Most healthy people don’t experience complications from shingles. The course of the illness may even be shortened if you manage to see your doctor and are started on a course of antivirals within the first 3 days of the rash appearing.
Elderly people and those with compromised immune systems may experience complications. Postherpetic neuralgia (the VZV is in the herpes family of viruses) occurs when pain associated with the rash persists for months or years following an outbreak. Nerves can be damaged from a shingles outbreak. Damaged nerves can send faulty messages that they body interprets as pain. Nerve damage is incredibly difficult to heal. Patients over the age of 50 seem to be most at risk for developing PHN.
Hutchinson’s Sign in a shingles outbreak is a rash appearing on the tip of your nose. This sign indicates VZV infection of the ophthalmic nerve. Temporary blindness and eye swelling and should be seen by a doctor immediately. Ramsay Hunt Syndrome occurs when the VZV invades the facial nerve. Intense pain in the ear combined with dizziness, hearing loss and blisters in and around the face, ear, neck and scalp should also be seen by a doctor right away.
Bacterial skin infections can result from scratching your skin open; creating a doorway for bacteria to get into the body. In an already weakened immune system, your body may not be able to fight off these additional pathogens.
Infections in your internal organs may occur in patients with compromised immune systems.
My little disclaimer…
I am not a doctor or medical professional. This article is meant for informational interest only and should not be used in place of a physician’s diagnosis.