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What you need to know about shingles

Shingles can only occur if we have had chicken pox at some point in our lives, so who is most likely to get infected and how can it be treated?

It is estimated that around 1 in 5 people who have had chickenpox will have an attack of shingles later in life.  Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus and can occur anywhere on the body but most often manifests itself as a single strip of blisters around the torso, although it has been known to affect the body and face too.

Shingles vaccination

While there is no obvious reason for an attack it is more likely to occur with age so the NHS offers a shingles vaccine to those aged 70 or 78 years.  If you are eligible but have missed out then you are entitled to be vaccinated up until your 80th birthday.  The vaccination can be administered at any time of the year.

It is safe to have the shingles vaccine even if you have already had shingles as it should boost immunity against further attacks.

Treatment for shingles

If given within the first few days, antiviral drugs have proven to be effective in shortening an attack.  It is therefore very important to seek a diagnosis as early as possible.  These can be either administered as tablets and/or cream – an example of an antiviral medicine is Acyclovir.

Rest and taking pain killers such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or applying a cool compress may help to ease the pain.

If there is a bacterial infection present along with shingles then an antibiotic cream or tablets may also need to be taken.

Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is long-term nerve pain associated with shingles may be reduced if anti-viral drugs are taken during the attack.  If you do suffer PHN with symptoms such as itching, irritation, burning, tingling, super sensitivity, pain, numbness and soreness then using an anaesthetic ointment (lidocain 5%) before applying a topical analgesic cream (capsaicin) should help.  Capsaicin is a prescribed medicine that can only be obtained via your doctor.

Your doctor can also prescribe antidepressants, anticonvulsants, as well as stronger pain killers but these will depend on your particular medical history and needs.

You may wish to consider trying a TENS machine to help with the pain.  These transmit low voltage electrical impulses to a small area which can prevent the nerves sending pain messages to the brain.  The benefit of using a TENS machine is that is completely drug free and can usually be borrowed from your local Pain Clinic.

It is also a good idea to make yourself as comfortable as possible by wearing loose-fitting clothing and when washing avoid using scented soaps or bath oils.

What should I do if I suspect shingles?

The first and most important thing to do is to see your doctor as early as possible as the sooner you treat it the better the treatment will work.

Secondly, stay away from high risk people such as newborn babies, people with reduced immunity and those who have not previously had chickenpox (especially pregnant women).

Will I have to take time off work?

If you have a temperature then you may need bed rest for a few days, however you can return to work or your normal routine once the rash has dried out and crusted over.

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