Itches are usually bothersome, pesky annoyances that we all can’t help but scratch. Once the itch is scratched, the irritation usually goes away without a hitch. Then, there are those other itches that aren’t irritating, but painful. The slightest touch or a rather strong breeze can send searing waves of pain from that itch to the very core of your spine. You don’t know whether to scratch them or leave them alone, or just vanish into a wall because of all the complicated thoughts and emotions you have about a rather simple itch. When this happens, you may just have a bad case of the shingles.
Anyone who has suffered from shingles before knows how much pain and agony it can cause. Shingles is anything but a simple rash, or a mild case of a powerful itch. The feeling of having shingles varies from a constant, consistent, and irritating sensation, to a throbbing, stabbing, and agonizing pain. If you have shingles, or you suspect you have shingles, here are some ways to bring yourself relief and freedom from the itch.
What are Shingles?
Shingles is the common name for herpes zoster, which is a skin disease caused by a viral infection. The disease is characterized by a persistent, blistery rash located on one side of the body. Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VSV), the same microorganism that causes chickenpox. People who already had chickenpox are susceptible to shingles, because VSV lies dormant in the nervous system. Years after the chickenpox episode, the virus can be re-activated and cause shingles.
Herpes zoster, unlike its namesake, is not a sexually-transmitted disease. It is not yet known how the varicella zoster virus remains dormant on the body, and how shingles develop. While shingles usually clear up and heal three or four weeks after they appear, some people may end up developing a disease called postherpetic neuralgia, a nerve disorder suffered by some herpes patients.
Herpes zoster is very rarely life-threatening, but it is a common illness. About four in every 1,000 healthy people under the age of 65 will suffer from shingles, and the risk of getting the disease increases to about 11 in every 1,000 people over the age of 65.
Most cases of shingles appear as small, watery, fluid-filled blisters and rashes that occur on one side of the body. The most common manifestation of shingles is a band called a dermatome, which spans one side of the abdomen along the waist area. Shingles can also appear around the neck, shoulder, and the chest.
Signs and Symptoms of Shingles
Here are some signs and symptoms of shingles:
- Headache, nausea, fever, and a feeling of general malaise.
- Small, watery blisters in a band-shaped formation on one side of the body.
- Mild or throbbing pain on the blisters whenever they’re touched, or come into contact with water or strong winds.
Do not take shingles symptoms for granted. Among people diagnosed with HIV, chemotherapy patients, or people with weak immune systems, even a simple disease like shingles is potentially lethal.
Consult a Doctor
Like any illness, it’s very important for you to consult a doctor once you get shingles. While you could wait for the infection to run its course, it’s very important to know whether or not the infection is dangerous. You should definitely consult a doctor if:
- The rash oozes pus or blood.
- The rash is unusually red, or looks infected.
- The symptoms, rashes, and mild fever does not go away after at least four weeks.
- You’re undergoing therapy or if you have an autoimmune disease.
Medical Treatments for Shingles
While there’s nothing wrong with letting shingles run their course, the throbbing pain and sensation caused by shingles can be too much to stand without treatment. Doctors usually prescribe specially-formulated analgesics and treatments meant to put the virus under control, although you can use over-the-counter treatments to soothe the pain. Here are some medical treatments you can buy from the pharmacy:
- Calamine lotion like Caladryl has long been used to soothe and relieve pain caused by shingles. Spread a small amount of the pink stuff on your skin. Calamine lotion will only provide temporary relief from the irritation, so you may need to keep a bottle handy just in case you need the soothing effect.
- Antiviral drugs are a first course of action for the treatment of shingles. Antiviral drugs prevent VSV from replicating, which alleviates the signs and symptoms of shingles. Aciclovir is a common drug used to treat shingles, although doctors are now exploring the effectivity of drugs like valaciclovir and famciclovir. Antiviral drugs are the same prophylactic drugs used for HIV and AIDS patients. For serious cases, like if the immune system of the patient is not healthy, the drugs may be used intravenously.
- Analgesics. At some point during the shingles phase, the pain may be so severe that you need a way to ease the pain. An over-the-counter analgesic or anti-inflammatory can help reduce the painful sensations from the infection.
- Capsaicin creams like Zostrix are effective at numbing the pain and irritating sensations from the itch. Capsaicin is the same chemical found in chili peppers. In its medical form, capsaicin can numb the nerve endings of the area affected with shingles, and temporarily relieve the pain. It can also hasten the recovery process.
- Lidocaine patches work in two ways. First, the trace amounts of topical painkiller in the lidocaine patch can numb the nerve endings found in the rash. Second, the paper backing of the patch can help protect you from scratching your skin and breaking up the tissue, possibly spreading some infection.
- Corticosteroids like prednisone are often used to treat shingles, although they’re not nearly as effective as antiviral drugs. Corticosteroid treatment is very risky, and the use of it is not as widespread as before.
Soothing Home Remedies for Shingles
Shingles will eventually heal by itself after a few weeks. Medical treatments are quite complicated because of the many sophisticated chemicals and other substances found in them. They may even do more harm than good. If you choose to have your attack of shingles run its course, here are some soothing home remedies that you could use to relieve the pain:
- Salt and vinegar. Fry some ordinary table salt on a cast-iron pan until it turns brown, and add some cane vinegar or cider vinegar to the hot salt. Be careful not to inhale the fumes. While still warm, rub some of the salt and vinegar on the sores to dry them out and heal them more quickly.
- Vitamin supplements. Vitamins C, E, and B-complex (especially vitamin B-12) can help you combat the viral infection faster.
- Talcum powder. Sprinkle some talcum powder or baby powder on the itch. The powder will help draw out the moisture from the blisters, and will help heal the shingles faster.
- Gauze or bandage help prevent you from scratching the itchy blisters unnecessarily. They can also protect your skin if you have rashes that get painful at the first gust of wind.
There’s always a cure for every itch, even something as annoying and irritating as shingles. With these tips, even the itchiest and most annoying rashes brought about by shingles can be relieved and soothed.