Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is caused by an infection with the chickenpox virus. What these two infectious diseases have in common is that both result in blisters forming on the skin. However, unlike chickenpox, shingles often occurs in the elderly. This is because the virus, which someone contracted in childhood, becomes active again at a later age. The virus remains in the body after healing. It’s not clear what causes the virus to become active again. Very occasionally it also occurs in children. One specific characteristic of shingles is that the spots and blisters sit like a girdle on one side of the body or face.
Shingles may result in:
- (Severe) pain.
- Burning skin.
- Blisters and red spots.
- A fluey feeling.
- A fever.
- An infected eye.
The blisters usually disappear within ten days. If you’ve had it once, you’re unlikely to get it again.
If you contract shingles we would recommend you:
- Don’t touch the blisters.
- Find enough distraction to tolerate the pain and itching more effectively.
- Cover the blisters with wound gauze. This will prevent the blisters from opening up because your clothing is rubbing against them. It will also prevent your clothing from staining.
- Apply zinc ointment or lanette ointment to the areas which are really itchy. These are available from the chemist or pharmacy.
It’s also important for you to avoid infecting others with the virus. You can do this by:
- Thoroughly washing your hands with soap if you’ve touched the blisters.
- Not touching others. At least not whilst the blisters have not dried up. They will still be contagious then.
- Use your own towel and change it on a daily basis.
- Don’t come near people with a compromised immune system. They can become very ill if they’re infected with the virus.
- Keep away from pregnant women who have not yet had chickenpox.
You can shower or take a bath. This won’t do any harm.
If you have shingles, you should contact your GP if:
- The blisters and spots are in the corner of your eye or on your nose.
- You develop eye symptoms. You develop a pain in your eye, your vision is impaired and/or you have difficulty tolerating light.
- There are blisters in or around your ear. This has resulted in you suddenly being able to hear less.
- You can’t close your eye anymore.
- The corner of your mouth has drooped.
- Your face has skewed.
- You already had a compromised immune system.
- You are in excruciating pain.
Your GP will then look into your symptoms and, if necessary, refer you to an ENT specialist. Your GP will prescribe appropriate medication in the event of symptoms which indicate an eye infection or hearing damage. Your GP sometimes prescribes virus inhibitors. This is mainly prescribed for people with a compromised immune system or who are in a great deal of pain.
You can also be prescribed Amitriptyline or Gabapentin in case of unbearable pain. This is only done in extreme cases, as both medications have unpleasant side effects. They can make you drowsy, dizzy or sleepy. It may take a few weeks for this medication to work.