Shingles: causes, symptoms and treatment

Shingles is a viral infection not to be confused with herpes simplex and that it is caused by the same virus as chickenpox.

In this article, we will explain what this condition is, what are its causes, and what we can do to treat it.

What is shingles?

Shingles (HZ) is a local reactivation of the chickenpox virus that remains latent, so to suffer from this disease you must have had chickenpox. This occurs after the presence of the primary infection and the presence of the virus in the spinal ganglia of the spinal cord or in the cranial pairs.

Statistics indicate that between 15% and 20% of people affected by chickenpox will develop shingles at some point in his life. The virus manifests itself again in different situations intermittently, but usually with the weakening of the immune system.

the causes

When a person becomes infected with the chickenpox zoster virus (usually occurs in childhood but also in adulthood), they develop chickenpox, a disease characterized by reddish watery rashes, which then become crusty. Fever is also a symptom of this disease. After about two weeks our body takes control of the infection and the symptoms are alleviated..

However, even if the symptoms are not present, it does not mean that the virus is gone, as it can continue inside the body and manifest itself throughout life. Although in the early stages of chickenpox it invades nerve endings in the skin, it can migrate to certain chains of ganglia located next to the spinal cord and brain, where they remain hidden even for decades.

Below you can watch a video in which an expert tells us about these diseases.

Symptoms and signs

Shingles is not only a very nasty disease, but it can cause great harm to the sufferer. The symptomatic picture usually begins with the patient’s discomfort: the patient is tired and fatigued. After two or 3 days there is pain and itching and in many cases great tenderness in the area of ​​the affected nerve, then there are skin manifestations, with reddish swelling in this area and nodules in the shape of a grape. Later, vesicles form which can be different sizes, even reaching that of a pea. Over the days, the skin dries up and scabs appear.

Usually, the skin manifestation takes place in the skin of the thorax or abdomen, which usually begins in the spine and extends to the front of the body, as the middle girdle (so this infection gets the colloquial name of shingles). Sometimes this can cause trunk paralysis, although this is rare.

However, when the virus is in the cranial nerve, shingles can also appear on the face, for example in the eyes, nose, forehead, jaw, and scalp of half of the face (called herpes zoster ophthalmic). This can cause serious problems, because if it affects the cornea of ​​the eye, it can even lead to vision loss.

When herpes occurs in the ear it is called shingles oticus and in up to 60% of cases causes facial paresisIn other words, the paralysis of the face (usually goes away with time). Shingles can appear anywhere on the body (even the genitals) and occurs at any stage of life when conditions occur in which the immune system is not optimal. It is more common to appear after 50 years.

Post-herpetic neuralgia: when herpes is complicated

Symptoms of shingles usually last 2 to 4 weeks, although sometimes the outbreak is complicated and something called postherpetic neuralgia appears, as the pain persists but the skin manifestations do not.

Just under 4% of patients with herpes zoster have this complication, which can persist for months, years or permanently. The pain of postherpetic neuralgia can be sharp and intermittent or constant and can be very debilitating.


Without a doubt, the best treatment for shingles is prevention, which is why vaccination has been shown to be very effective. in more than 50% of cases. However, in Spain social security does not cover its administration and in Europe it is only allowed for people over 50 years old. There is a possibility of vaccination against chickenpox, but some studies conclude that although it reduces the symptoms and the appearance of chickenpox, shingles still appears.

When a person suffers from this problem and it manifests, treatment should begin as soon as possible., But not to eliminate the virus, which is not possible, but to relieve the symptoms. Doctors often prescribe creams such as acyclovir or corticosteroids for pain relief as well as antiviral drugs. In cases of postherpetic neuralgia, different drugs may be given, including gabapentin, cyclic antidepressants, or lidocaine patches. Opioid pain relievers may be needed and intrathecal methylprednisolone may be of benefit. Recent studies suggest that injecting botulinum toxin A into the area repeatedly can reduce pain.

Differences between shingles and herpes simplex

It is important not to confuse shingles with herpes simplex (labial and genital)As they are caused by different viruses, which belong to the herpesviridae viral family. Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus (VZV) as I mentioned, also called human herpes-3 (HHV-3); however, herpes simplex is spread by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-2) in the genitals) and (HSV-1) in the area of ​​the lips, cheeks or nose.

How it spreads

In the case of herpes simplex, you don’t need to have chickenpox, so it is spread from person to person, for example with a kiss. Shingles is not contagious in one person or another; however, the individual with shingles can pass the virus from person to person when the subject exposed to the virus has not yet had chickenpox. When this happens, the person does not develop shingles, but chickenpox.

If you want to learn more about shingles, you can check out the audiovisual content that you can find below.

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