Shingles: Causes, Treatment, and Vaccine

With a widening temperature gap that weakens the immune system and the general adaptability of a human body, we’re seeing a sharp increase in patients suffering from various conditions. Since respiratory diseases are common when seasons change, we naturally assume it is a common cold when we feel sick.

It does feel like a common cold when you have chills and fevers while your whole body aches. But these symptoms don’t always guarantee it is just a common cold. Some other diseases have similar symptoms; one of the most representative among them is shingles.

About 40,000 people develop shingles a month, but the number rapidly increases around October and November, during the turning of seasons, to 45,000. Therefore, now is the time you should be even more careful about the disease. Women in their fifties particularly account for 30 percent of all females that are hospitalized for shingles, which is a remarkably high percentage. So, what causes shingles? How should the disease be treated?

Let’s take a thorough look at shingles with Prof. Yang, Jun Mo and Prof. Lee, Jong Hee from Department of Dermatology, SMC.


What are the causes of shingles?

Varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles is the same virus that causes chickenpox in children. The virus doesn’t go away when the chicken pox is cured; it sneaks through our nerve system and gets inside our spinal cord where it hides for a long time. It waits until our health deteriorates or our immune system is weakened by other illnesses, when it’s reactivated and causes shingles.

Shingles mostly affects people whose whole-body immune system has been weakened, such as seniors over 60, AIDS or cancer patients, and people undergoing chemotherapy. But young people can also suffer from this illness when they are overworked or under heavy stress; women older than 50 years experience this condition quite commonly.
It is characteristic of shingles that it spreads along one of the neural pathways in our body.

Since our neural pathways each extend from the spinal cord to either side of the body, a shingles patient experiences the painful skin rash with blisters on just one side of the body. And the disease mostly affect the sensory nerves rather than the motor nerves.


What’s the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles causes symptoms such as chills, fever, nausea, and fatigue, similar to those of a common cold.
And the patient suffers from severe pain or abnormal sensations in either side of the body. Headache, difficulty in breathing, stomachache, numb limbs, or muscular pain can also happen.


Is there a possibility of complications?

Shingles will hurt more and cause many complications without a timely treatment!
Shingles can cause more intense pain and lead to a wide range of complications in different body parts if not treated on time.
When the illness affects the area around the eye, various complications might develop in the eyes; in the face or the ears, it may lead to facial paralysis.

The most remarkable complication is neuralgia, experienced by about 10 to 18 percent of patients. It is a burning, throbbing chronic pain that may stay for months or even years. Such chronic pain may also cause sleep disorder, depression, and chronic fatigue. Moreover, even a slight touch or friction becomes incredibly painful, causing a great disturbance in everyday life when you get dressed or take a bath, for example.

In less than 5 percent of the patients, the illness may affect the motor nerves, preventing the patient from raising the arms or the legs. If the infection occurs in the bladder area, one might not be able to urinate.

Such risk of diverse complications makes it crucial for a shingles patient to get proper treatments as soon as the symptoms appear.


How should shingles be treated?

Diverse antiviral medicines are newly developed in recent days, and they are indeed very useful in the treatment of shingles. However, there is yet no drug that can perfectly defeat the virus that causes shingles. Therefore, it is an imperative that antivirals are administered early on to prevent the development of neuralgia that follows the rash.

The conditions will be completely cured in most cases with about a week of antiviral injection, if the treatment starts within three to five days of the appearance of skin rash. But if the treatment didn’t begin on time or the patient is too elderly or has cancer, the pain might persist after the antiviral is administered.

The time period during which the pain lasts varies from one month to one year depending on the patient’s health and it may stay even longer in some cases. And since antiviral drugs are almost entirely processed by the kidneys, the amount of the injection should be adjusted in patients with kidney failure.

Though the contact with a patient generally doesn’t lead to the contagion of shingles, it might cause diseases in people who haven’t suffered chicken pox before, young children, or hospitalized patients. For these cases, quarantine is recommended. Having been ill with this disease doesn’t form an immunity against it; it can recur. But fortunately, the recurrence rate is as low as 0.1 to 1 percent.

The vaccine is the most effective prevention against shingles. It prevents the dormant virus, which sneaked into the body when one suffered from chicken pox, from being reactivated. Adults older than 50 should be vaccinated.
But if you have already suffered and recovered from shingles, you don’t need it. And because the shingles vaccine is relatively new, some experts say we can’t be very sure yet about its efficacy or side effects.

When our immune system is weakened, our body becomes susceptible to many illnesses.
We should care about our own health and take preventive measures as needed. When you don’t feel good, don’t hesitate to go receive proper treatments.
We hope everybody stays healthy this autumn!