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Shingles

The same virus that causes chicken pox causes shingles, a painful condition that involves inflammation of sensory nerves. Ruth Kandel, M.D., a geriatrician at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center and chair of its Infection Control Committee, says that, although painful, shingles is not often a serious condition. In some cases, however, people can develop a condition called postherpetic neuralgia. Prompt treatment, she adds, can shorten the severity and duration of the infection and reduce the risk of complications.

Definition

An acute viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus 

Causes

  • Primary infection with chicken pox
  • Secondary eruption of the varicella-zoster virus, which may remain dormant in the body until it is reactivated

Symptoms

  • Pain, burning, tingling, itching and extreme sensitivity in certain parts of the body
  • Red rash with fluid-filled blisters, usually on one side of the body
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Upset stomach

Risk Factors

  • Prior history of chicken pox
  • Age (those over 50 are at higher risk)
  • Weakened immune system

Diagnosis

  • Classic rash that occurs a few days after onset of pain or burning sensation

Treatment

  • Oral antiviral medications (within 24 to 72 hours after onset of lesions)
  • Capsaicin to relieve pain (used cautiously due to potential for skin irritation)
  • Anticonvulsant medications, tricyclic antidepressants, or a lidoderm patch to reduce pain of postherpetic neuralgia

Glossary

Capsaicin - a topical ointment or skin patch that contains pain-relieving medication.

Chicken pox - an acute contagious disease, especially in children, marked by low-grade fever and a red, itchy rash.

Lesion - an abnormality involving any tissue or organ in the body due to disease or injury.

Lidoderm patch - a topical treatment used to help relieve the pain of postherpetic neuralgia.

Postherpetic neuralgia - a painful condition that affects nerve fibers and skin as a result of shingles.

Sensory nerves - nerves in the sense organs such as the skin.

Tricyclic antidepressants - a class of drugs that work by inhibiting the action of certain neurotransmitters (electrical messengers in the brain) that are linked to depression; used cautiously in the elderly due to potential side effects.

Varicella-zoster - a virus belonging to the herpes family that causes chicken pox and shingles.

Virus - a microscopic agent that causes infectious disease.

Links

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/shingles/shingles.htm

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