For people over 50, a threat of chickenpox is a childhood memory. As an adult, however, you might still be susceptible to shingles, a skin condition that is caused by the reactivation of a the dormant chickenpox virus. It shows up as a rash with blisters, muscle soreness, and fever. The virus can remain dormant for years at a time, so if you had chickenpox as a child, you may not develop shingles until well into adulthood, if you do at all. That being said, having chickenpox as a child does put you at a higher risk for developing shingles. Even following cases of shingles in children, it can re-emerge later in life. If you've received the chickenpox or shingles vaccine, however, you're protected from the virus.
As a virus, shingles transmission occurs between people, usually young children, when it demonstrates itself as chickenpox. The risk of shingles grows as we age, and those of us who have had chickenpox have the virus that can be reactivated. While it’s not always clear exactly what activates shingles in adults, the weakening immune system of mature generations increases the virus’ potential to emerge. People who have compromised immune systems or disease are more likely to have more painful and prolonged outbreaks.
The diagnosis of shingles is often made by the appearance and symptoms of the condition. Shingles tends to develop mostly on the trunk and buttocks, but it can occur and spread anywhere on the body. It is most dangerous if it occurs on or around the eyes, since the virus can cause permanent eye damage. When it is necessary, your doctor can sample some of the cells from a blister and examine them to confirm the diagnosis and move forward with a shingles treatment.
The first symptoms of shingles are:
Rash: The shingles virus most often rears its ugly head in the form of a rash. The shingles rash is very similar to that of chickenpox, since the two conditions are caused by the same infection. It will typically consist of painful, fluid-filled blisters localized to one area of the body. This localization occurs because shingles affects localized nerve roots. This rash most commonly occurs on the chest, back, neck, and buttocks, where clusters of these nerves reside.
Tingling sensations or numbness: In addition to their flu-like symptoms, many shingles patients report tingling or numbness just before the shingles rash develops. These sensations typically occur in the same area of the body that the shingles rash later affects.
Nausea: Though vomiting is a relatively uncommon result of this nausea, patients often report sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, and a general feeling of lasting queasiness. One important thing to note is that, unlike the flu, nausea that precedes a shingles outbreak typically doesn't come with a fever. This is a key differentiator in these two conditions.
Eye complications: If the shingles virus spreads to the nerves that connect to a patient's eyes, vision impairments may occur. They may manifest in the form of extreme sensitivity to light, which can be painful and might be mistaken for symptoms of a migraine. In more severe cases, the shingles virus may even cause conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. If these symptoms develop, it's important to seek medical attention immediately. If eye symptoms caused by shingles are left untreated, they may cause permanent vision impairment. While blindness as a result of shingles is rare, it's still a possibility that nobody should ignore.
Extreme fatigue: This is yet another symptom that patients frequently mistake for the flu. In the days before a shingles outbreak, there are typically cases of extreme, unexplained fatigue. In rare cases, patients have experienced confusion and even temporary memory loss during this period of extreme fatigue. Like each of the symptoms described above, whether it turns out to be the flu or not, extreme fatigue should be addressed by a doctor.
Some of these signs might be mistaken for aches of older age, but usually, those aches are caused by something else. In addition, older age puts people at higher risk of complications from diseases like shingles, which can have cascading effects if left untreated.
In general, maintaining healthy body care and dietary habits that encourage a strong immune system is an important way to lower the chances for an appearance of shingles. In addition, the virus is preventable through vaccination and is treated with the same antiviral drugs as are usually prescribed for herpes types 1 and 2. Pain relievers and corticosteroids are sometimes also used to reduce swelling and pain. While shingles treatment is available, it's important to pay attention to the symptoms so treatment can begin as soon as possible.
If you're concerned about a rash and you suspect it may be shingles, reach out to our office today to schedule an appointment and get the attentive care you need.