Commonly known as Shingles, Herpes zoster is a viral disease caused by the varicella zoster virus. It is the same virus which is responsible for causing chicken pox. Older people with a weak immune system are highly susceptible to herpes zoster. Painful skin rashes with blisters in a limited area on one side of the body, often in a stripe, are common in herpes zoster infection.
Although a patient of chicken pox gets treated for the illness and recovers from it, sometimes, the virus remains in the body in a dormant condition in certain nerve cells of the body. When this virus suddenly becomes active in the nerve cells, the reason for which is not clear, the person suffers from a herpes zoster infection. Although the exact reason for reactivation of this virus remains unknown, many researchers and doctors suggest that ill health and high level of stress contribute to it. People aged 50 and above and those with low levels of immunity, such as AIDS/HIV patients are susceptible to the herpers zoster infection.
The first phase of symptoms includes itching, tingling, burning and a sharp pain in a particular area of the body. After a few day, red rashes may start to develop on the skin and then, these painful rashes turn into fluid-filled blisters. Herpes zoster also causes fever and headache, and the patient may suffer from unusual tiredness. After 3-4 days, the blisters start to form small ulcers that begin to dry and form crusts. These scabs fall off within 2-3 weeks. In some cases, the scabs may leave scars on the skin. If the virus affects a nerve around the eyes, there may be a serious infection in the eyes and inflammation of the cornea. On rare occasions, such a viral infection of a facial nerve may cause paralysis or weakness of one side of the face.
The rash clears in a few weeks, without any treatment. However, treatment may help to speed up the recovery process and decrease the chances of further complications. Ideally, the treatment, for it to be more effective, should be started before the blisters start appearing. Antiviral medicines and painkillers can relieve the symptoms and reduce the possibility of postherpetic neuralgia. If eyes get infected by the virus, one should immediately seek medical treatment.
For a fast recovery, it is most important to keep the skin clean. Starch baths, colloidal baths, or calamine lotion may help in reducing the itching and discomfort. Resting till the fever goes down is essential for improvement in the condition.
Usually, the symptoms subside with proper treatment, and the patient recovers within 2-3 weeks. However, a single attack of herpes zoster virus doesn’t mean that the patient becomes immune to the infection; the infection may reoccur.
It is advisable not to touch the blisters and rash of the infected person, especially if one has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccination. Elderly people should take the herpes zoster vaccination; it will guard them against further complications caused by herpes zoster. In fact, adults above the age of sixty should receive the herpes zoster vaccine as a part of their routine medical care.