Have you ever had chickenpox? So you are potentially susceptible to shingles, especially if your immunity is weakened. Here’s how to recognize this disease.
Shingles (or herpes zoster) is an infectious disease characterized by a painful rash. It is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, which belongs to the herpesvirus family. Therefore, it occurs in a person who has already had chickenpox, most often in childhood.
What are the causes of shingles?
After healing from chickenpox, the virus does not completely disappear: it remains inactivated at the level of the nerve roots. Years later, it can reactivate and lead to shingles. Specifically, the virus multiplies in a nerve ganglion and crosses nerve fibers causing a painful rash or mucous membrane in the area innervated by these fibers.
The cause of this reactivation is often unknown. However, we know that it can occur at a time when the immune system is weakened, for example due to:
a disease (HIV, cancer, infectious diseases, etc.);
taking immunosuppressive drugs;
What are the first symptoms of shingles?
Shingles tends to appear first on the side of the body where chickenpox was most severe. In half of the cases, this is the chest – we are talking about the intercostal area. The disease can also affect the thoracolumbar region, abdomen, genitals, neck and face.
During the two to three days before shingles appear, most patients experience pain, tingling, or itching of the skin on one side of the body. Lymph nodes may be palpable in the armpit on the same side.
Hence, redness appears on the affected part of the body. Then a rash develops that resembles small, fluid-filled blisters surrounded by a red area. In the case of intercostal zoster, the rashes evoke the shape of a half belt: they develop in a horizontal band that extends from the spine to the side of the chest.
Other symptoms of shingles
These lesions continue to appear for 3-5 days and are mainly concentrated in the area innervated by the infected nerves, although some blisters may appear in other parts of the body.
These little pimples are itchy and very painful to touch. They are also contagious and can spread chickenpox to people who are not immune to the virus.
In addition to the rash, patients may also experience:
severe pain on one side of the chest, such as a burning or stabbing sensation;
a temporary loss of sensation in some areas of the skin.
herpes zoster: disappearance of symptoms
Between 5 and 7 days after onset, the blisters begin to dry out and form a scab. These scabs fall off after 2 to 3 weeks and can leave pink or whitish scars, but this is not systematic: healing often occurs without sequelae.
Symptoms that persist beyond three weeks may indicate immune system dysfunction. It is advisable to consult a doctor again.
Ophthalmic and auricular zoster: specific signs
Sometimes the virus can affect a nerve that innervates the eye. Ophthalmic herpes zoster occurs mainly with violent, throbbing headaches located on the forehead and in one eye. Hence, a rash appears on one side of the face. It can be located on the forehead, scalp, nose or eyelid.
This form of shingles is concerning because it often gives rise to complications such as conjunctivitis, keratitis, eye movement paralysis, and even vision loss.
Shingles can also affect the auditory nerves. It is characterized by the appearance of blisters in the ear, but also by tinnitus, dizziness, facial paralysis or hearing loss.
Shingles: what are the possible complications?
The most common complication is postherpetic neuralgia, which occurs in about 10% of patients and mainly in the elderly. This is a burning or electric shock-like pain that persists long after the blisters disappear and can last for months or even years. This can be very serious and affect the patient’s quality of life, particularly leading to sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, anxiety or depression.
Also, scratching the blisters can cause another type of complication: bacterial superinfection.
The earlier the shingles is treated, the lower the risk of complications, hence the importance of knowing the symptoms well.