Shingles: What You Should Do If the Chicken Pox Virus Returns
Chicken pox once was considered a childhood rite of passage, yet few of us expect to experience a second eruption of the same virus. But this itchy and painful condition, known as shingles, strikes one in three adults during their lifetime. Advertising Policy Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site … Read More
Chicken pox once was considered a childhood rite of passage, yet few of us expect to experience a second eruption of the same virus. But this itchy and painful condition, known as shingles, strikes one in three adults during their lifetime.
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Its hallmark is a rash that appears as a band or a patch of raised dots, usually on one side of the body. The rash eventually develops into red, fluid-filled, round, painful blisters that dry out within a few days or weeks.
Why it happens
The varicella zoster virus (VZV), responsible for both diseases, doesn’t leave the body when chicken pox resolves. Instead, it settles quietly into nerve cells near the spinal cord for a potential reappearance. This can happen when our immune systems are compromised.
The greatest risk factor is age, says Cleveland Clinic anesthesiology and pain management specialist Benjamin Abraham, MD, who treats patients at Elyria Family Health Center and Marymount Hospital. “As we age, our immune system doesn’t work as well,” he says, adding that the risk is especially high in those age 70 and older.
Dr. Abraham says the virus can be reactivated in times of stress. This can also happen when a person’s immune system is repressed, which can occur in those with cancer, HIV, or in those who have had an organ transplant.
Because it’s a virus, there is no cure for shingles. However, most sufferers can weather the illness relatively comfortably, Dr. Abraham says. Much depends on how severe a person’s symptoms are and how early the diagnosis is made.
“Prompt diagnosis and treatment of shingles is important,” says Dr. Abraham. “Studies have shown that when the rash is treated with prescription antivirus medications within 48-72 hours, the symptoms don’t last as long and complication rates go down,” he adds.
How to address pain and itching
Most people with shingles recover completely and can resume their normal routine after a few weeks. But some shingles sufferers develop a chronic pain condition, sometimes accompanied by persistent itching, that long outlasts the initial outbreak — or that crops up weeks or months later. This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
Fortunately, relief is available. Dr. Abraham recommends seeing a doctor at the first sign of PHN to keep it from worsening.