A medical alert has been issued for people aged over 50 regarding shingles after a rise in cases. People are being advised to see their doctor about the risk of getting the condition and the symptoms to look out for.

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What is shingles?

  • Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. It's caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus can remain dormant in the nervous system and reactivate later in life, causing shingles

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles symptoms usually affect only a small section on one side of your body. These symptoms may include:

  • Pain, burning, itching or tingling in affected area

  • Stabbing sensation in affected area

  • Sensitivity to touch

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Fever and/or headache

  • Fatigue

  • Body aches and chills

It is important to note:

The rash associated with shingles typically appears several days after the initial symptoms of pain, burning, or tingling. The rash usually begins as red patches on one side of the body or face and then develops into fluid-filled blisters. The rash usually forms a band or patch that follows the distribution of the affected nerve, often wrapping around one side of the torso or face.

The rash typically progresses over a period of several days to a week and can be very painful. The blisters eventually crust over and heal, usually within 2 to 4 weeks. In some cases, scarring or discoloration may occur at the site of the rash.

It's important to note that not everyone with shingles develops a rash. Some people may experience pain or other symptoms without any visible rash. Additionally, some people may experience a mild rash or only a few blisters, while others may have a more severe rash with many blisters.

Management of shingles (herpes zoster) - Australian Pharmacist

Causes of shingles

  • Anyone who has had chickenpox can have shingles. Chickenpox stays in the nerve cells near the spine but is not active. The virus can reactivate later, causing shingles.

  • It can occur at any age but mostly affects people 40 years and older and without forewarning

  • The most likely reasons it could affect you are:

    • If you’re aged 60 or more

    • If you’re experiencing physical and emotional stress

    • If you have/have had AIDS or HIV

    • If you’ve had an organ transplant

    • If you’ve recently had a bone marrow transplant

    • If you have a condition requiring treatment that affects your immune system (e.g. cancer treatment)

  • Most people who develop shingles have only one episode during their lifetime, but a weakened immune system can lead to repeat infections

Diagnosis and treatment

A doctor can diagnose shingles based on the characteristic symptoms and physical examination. In some cases, a sample of the rash may be taken to confirm the diagnosis.

There is no cure for shingles but antiviral medicine helps to relieve the symptoms and prevent complications. Some other ways to help manage the condition include:

  • Paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories help with pain relief.

  • Try to keep the rash dry and clean

  • Where possible, cover the rash to avoid spreading it to others

    • Use a non-stick dressing - do not use an antibiotic cream or sticking plasters as they may slow the healing process down

  • Try not to scratch the rash - this can lead to infection and scarring

  • Pat yourself dry after a shower - do not rub or use a towel to scratch the rash

  • Wear loose cotton clothes

  • Do not apply creams and gels as they increase the risk of a secondary bacterial infection

  • Avoid contact with people more at risk

  • Do not share towels/clothes, play sports or swim

  • Wash your hands regularly

  • Calamine lotion or cool compresses can help to soothe the skin and reduce itching

  • If the rash is severe or near the eye, an eye doctor should be consulted immediately to prevent complications.

Potential complications from shingles

Shingles can cause several complications, especially if the infection is not treated promptly or if it affects certain areas of the body. Some potential complications of shingles include:

  1. Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN): This is a common complication of shingles, characterized by persistent nerve pain in the affected area that can last for months or even years after the rash has healed.

  2. Vision loss: If shingles affects the eye (a condition called herpes zoster ophthalmicus), it can cause vision loss or other eye problems if left untreated.

  3. Secondary bacterial infections: The blisters caused by shingles can become infected with bacteria, leading to cellulitis, impetigo, or other skin infections.

  4. Neurological complications: In rare cases, shingles can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or spinal cord (myelitis), leading to neurological problems such as paralysis or seizures.

  5. Hearing or balance problems: Shingles that affects the ear (a condition called Ramsay Hunt syndrome) can cause hearing loss, vertigo, or other balance problems.

  6. Other complications: Shingles can also cause pneumonia, inflammation of the liver, or other systemic infections in people with weakened immune systems.

It's important to seek medical attention if you suspect you have shingles, especially if you are at higher risk for complications. Early treatment can help to reduce the risk of long-term complications and improve outcomes.

Shingles prevention

The best way to prevent shingles is by getting vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles vaccine for adults aged 50 years and older, even if they have had shingles before. The vaccine can help to reduce the risk of developing shingles and can also help to reduce the severity of symptoms if an infection does occur. However, it is important to discuss the most suitable vaccine with your doctor.

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Information sourced from: CDC, HealthDirect, MayoClinic.

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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