Most people have heard of shingles or seen it on someone they know. Shingles (herpes zoster) is an itchy, painful rash with blisters caused by the reactivation of the chicken pox virus (varicella zoster virus).
In the Netherlands, approximately 95% of the population has had chicken pox. After recovery the virus remains in the body. The virus retreats to a nerve node next to the spinal cord. After many years, this virus can become active again. The risk of this occurring increases with age, especially from the age of 50. This is due to the natural deterioration of the immune system that occurs with age.
Symptoms of shingles
Shingles starts with itching, tingling or severe burning or stabbing pain. After a few days, blisters appear in groups on one side of the body. After 10 to 14 days, the blisters dry into scabs. Once the symptoms disappear, the shingles episode ends.
Complications of shingles
In some cases, shingles can cause complications. The most common complication is nerve pain (post herpetic neuralgia, abbreviated as PHN). This occurs in 5% to 30% of people who suffer from shingles. Once the symptoms disappear, you may continue to suffer from (nerve) pain and tingling in the affected area. This pain can last for months and, in very rare cases, years. With shingles infections of the face, an inflammation of the eye may occur and, in rare cases, paralysis of the facial muscles and hearing loss may occur.
Treatment of shingles
Shingles usually goes away by itself. There are medicines that relieve the pain. Additionally, an ointment or cream can help to alleviate the itching. Zinc ointment or a neutral cream can be applied to the blisters. Sometimes, viral inhibitors can be prescribed. This is the case if shingles affects the face, or in people with reduced resistance due to a serious illness. Medicines can also be prescribed to alleviate severe (nerve) pain. Treatment may serve to reduce the pain.
Shingles is contagious through the fluid from the shingles blisters. Consequently, touch the blisters as little as possible. And make sure they are covered, using gauze for example. Wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with any fluid from the blisters. Someone who has not yet had chicken pox may catch it if they come into contact with the fluid. Although not included in the national vaccination programme in the Netherlands, vaccination against chicken pox is possible. The same applies to shingles. This means that you can get vaccinated against shingles at your own expense. Unlike treatment, vaccination is preventive, so it can prevent a disease from developing. Vaccination therefore does not help if you have already contracted chicken pox or shingles, neither does it help against possible complications.