Shingles: when the varicella virus returns

Shingles can have significant repercussions on the health, well-being and quality of life of those affected by it. Learn how to prevent and treat it.

What causes shingles?

Shingles are triggered by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, which has remained latent in the human organism for many years, following the initial occurrence.

After causing chickenpox and all the inconveniences of this disease, the virus fixes itself to glands and waits for the opportunity to manifest itself once more. Most adults are carriers of the virus, called the “varicella-zoster virus”, and it is estimated that nearly one in three people will suffer from shingles in the course of their lifetime.

Who runs the highest risk of developing shingles?

Shingles can affect anyone who is a carrier of the virus, but manifests itself particularly in people over the age of 50, who have a weakened immune system. Certain diseases (e.g., cancer), infections (e.g., AIDS) and treatments (drugs, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, etc.) can compromise the immune system’s defence mechanisms, which translates into perfect opportunities for the virus to get the upper hand!

How can you recognize shingles?

Shingles can be recognized by a localized and very distinct skin rash. Lesions appear in the form of red clustered blisters mostly on the chest, but sometimes also appear on the back, buttocks, limbs, and even on the face or scalp.

Shingles legions may be accompanied or preceded by symptoms such as:

  • tingling sensation or numbness
  • intense itching
  • burning sensation
  • fever
  • intense and debilitating pain

Without treatment, shingles lesions last about three weeks on average.

Are shingles contagious?

Shingles are not contagious. However, the varicella virus is present in the fluid found in the blisters and can therefore infect a person who has never contracted it before.

In order for the virus to spread, the virus must come into contact with the mucous membrane of the eyes, mouth or nose, for example. Proper handwashing is important to prevent contamination from one person to another. In some cases, it is wise to avoid all contact. Caution is particularly important for pregnant women, newborns and people with a weakened immune system.

What are the consequences of shingles?

The most common consequence of shingles is persistent nerve pain, called “postherpetic neuralgia” or “post-zoster neuralgia.” The pain is due to nerve damage caused by the virus, which occurs in roughly 50% of people affected by shingles. Often described as an “electric shock sensation”, the pain is sometimes described as unbearable.

Shingles consists of chronic pain that is difficult to control. It can last for weeks, months and, more rarely, a lifetime. It can be accompanied by insomnia, fatigue, depression or social withdrawal. Although rare, there are other medical consequences, such as loss of vision and hearing, facial paralysis and skin infections.

How do you treat shingles?

If you think you might have developed shingles, consult a physician as soon as possible. Early medical treatment will help diminish the intensity of the disease and its complications. Follow your doctor’s instructions to the letter.

Antiviral agents:

These drugs can fight the shingles virus. In order to be effective, they must be taken as soon as the first signs of the disease appear. They have the effect of speeding up recovery and reducing acute pain and postherpetic neuralgia.

Analgesics (painkillers):

If you feel pain during a shingles episode, your doctor might prescribe or suggest the use of an analgesic.

If you suffer from postherpetic neuralgia, your physician may prescribe an oral, topical or intravenous drug. These medications usually require a prescription.

How can shingles be prevented?

The best way to prevent shingles is to never contract the varicella virus, which, as you’ll probably agree, is not that simple. There are few preventive measures that ward off shingles. Eating well and getting enough exercise and sleep are good ways to maintain a strong immune system.

Fortunately, a vaccine now exists for people ages 50 or older, who have already had chickenpox. Vaccination provides the best protection against shingles and its complications. Your pharmacist can inform you about the benefits of the vaccine and the method of application. Some pharmacies provide a vaccination service against shingles. Speak to your pharmacist about it.

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Shingles: when the varicella virus returns

Shingles can have significant repercussions on the health, well-being and quality of life of those affected by it. Learn how to prevent and treat it.
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