Herpes Zoster aka Shingles: what it is and why you should get a Shingles Vaccine to prevent it

Herpes Zoster aka Shingles: what it is and why you should get a Shingles Vaccine to prevent it

It’s in the middle of the night and you wake up to a burning sensation at your side.  It’s itching and causing you so much turmoil.  You look down and see a rash spreading on your side.  What’s causing you pain is something referred to as herpes zoster.  Most of us know this as shingles though.

Herpes zoster is a viral infection that has a painful and itchy rash associated with it.   It’s usually associated with people on the side of the person’s body, but herpes zoster can also occur anywhere on the body.  Herpes zoster is caused by varicella-zoster virus.  This may sound familiar because this is the same virus that causes the chickenpox virus.   Once a person has chicken pox the virus stays inactive in their system.   It lays dormant in the central nervous system near your brain.  Most time it remains inactive, but when it does spring up it creates herpes zoster.  Thankfully, herpes zoster isn’t life threatening, but it IS very painful.

How Do I Get Herpes

To make sure that you get the best treatment it’s important that you know the signs and symptoms of herpes zoster.  If any of these spring up it’s important to go to your primary care physician immediately.  Herpes zoster is contagious!

  • painful, burning, itching, or numbness on your skin
  • a red rash that shows up in the area of the painful and burning sensations
  • skin that is sensitive to the touch
  • Blisters that are fluid filled, break open, then will crust over

In rare cases some individuals may have:

  • headache
  • light sensitivity
  • fever
  • fatigue

All these symptoms are really important to keep an eye out for.  The first symptom that occurs with herpes zoster is usually pain.  The location of the pain usually determines the amount of intensity you will feel.   And since some herpes zoster outbreaks can occur without a rash, people mistake the pain for kidney issues and other common pains in the body.  If a rash does occur, you will most likely see stripes along the body where the rash is forming.

You should contact your primary care physician immediately if you suspect herpes zoster is forming.  It’s always better to be safe than sorry.  You should especially contact your primary care physician if any of the following is a concern:

  • If a rash occurs and it’s VERY widespread and VERY painful!
  • Complications with herpes zoster increases with age, so if you’re over the age of 60 seeing your primary care physician is important.
  • You have a weaken immune system. Since herpes zoster is contagious if someone in your family has a weak immune system seek medical attention
  • If you have pain and rash near the eye.  Herpes zoster can lead the permanent eye damage if not treated

As stated earlier, herpes zoster is caused by the inactive chicken pox virus becoming active again.  Health professionals aren’t sure why some people get herpes zoster and others don’t.  Since herpes zoster seems to occur more in older individuals, some health professionals believe the virus becomes active again when the the immune system is weaker.

Since it is contagious to those who haven’t had the chicken pox, it’s important to stay away from people.  Newborns are especially at risk of being infected if you are around them.

Usually herpes zoster is harmless, but at times there may be complications that can arise from having it.  Some things to be aware of are:

  • Vision loss if herpes foster occurs around the eye area.
  • Depending on what nerves are infected by the virus, there could be some neurological problems.
  • If herpes zoster isn’t treated swiftly and accurately then skin infections can occur where the rash was.
  • Although rare, the most common complication from herpes zoster is postherpetic neuralgia. This is where pain still occurs in the rash area even after herpes zoster is cleared up

To help prevent herpes zoster from occurring, the Australian health officials strongly urge everyone to get the vaccine.   Thanks to the National Immunization Program (NIP) some individuals can get the vaccine for free if they qualify.   It’s very important to get the vaccine if you are over the age of 50. As stated earlier the older you are the weaker your immune system is so seeking the immunization is very important.

Peter Williams

About the author

Peter Williams administrator

Medical practitioner from Sydney, NSW.

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