Have you ever heard of human alphaherpesvirus3 (HHV-3)? How about varicella-zoster virus VZV)? Chances are that you’re probably unfamiliar with the terminology unless you’re a health care professional. However, you’re probably very aware of the very contagious childhood and young adult disease known as chickenpox. Simply put, HHV-3 and VZV are medical terms for the herpes virus that brings on chickenpox. Some twenty-five years ago, young people afflicted with chickenpox could expect to experience several days with an itchy rash and fever along with a series of blistering lesions that often appeared on the chest and back and which spread to the face and eventually over the entire body.
That all changed in 1995 when a chickenpox vaccine was introduced in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before that time an average of four million cases of this infection were reported each year with 10,500 to 13,000 hospitalizations and 100 to 150 deaths. While not wholly eradicated, since the introduction of the vaccine, there has been an 85 percent drop in infections and a drastic decrease in hospitalizations and deaths. And those who have been vaccinated but still get the virus usually experience far milder symptoms.
What Does All This Have to Do With Shingles?
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is caused by the very same virus that causes chickenpox. Young people who experience chickenpox and recover usually develop immunity from getting the disease. Despite that, however, they never completely rid themselves of the virus. Instead, VZV becomes inactive in the body, remaining dormant often for many years. Sometimes the virus never becomes reactivated. But sometimes it does. And when it does, it takes the form of herpes zoster, also known as shingles. Therefore, a person cannot become infected with herpes zoster unless they have first been infected with chickenpox.
What Causes Herpes Zoster to Reactivate?
Herpes zoster does not often rear its head in younger people with healthy immune systems. However, the risk increases for those with immunocompromised systems. Persons who take immunosuppressants for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or Crohn’s disease may be more susceptible. Likewise, those with illnesses that negatively impact the immune system, such as HIV are also at higher risk. There has also been some healthy debate in medical circles about whether or not undue stress can trigger reactivation. However, the natural process of simply growing older weakens the immune system, and as a result, the risk of acquiring herpes zoster increases substantially for all people over 50. The CDC reports that one in three people can expect to become infected in their lifetime.
Is Herpes Zoster Just Like Chickenpox?
Yes and no. Herpes zoster and chickenpox share some symptoms, but herpes zoster can be a much more severe disease. The symptoms are much more painful, and the condition can bring with it complications, the most common a long-term nerve pain known as postherpetic neuralgia. Chickenpox and herpes zoster both result in red, inflamed skin and often blistering lesions. In the case of herpes zoster, they tend to appear in the form of a band on one side of the torso. They can also appear on the face. Shared symptoms might also include fever and general malaise.
Unlike chickenpox, the pain from herpes zoster can be intense. The pain usually arrives before any signs of a rash. It is often accompanied by itching and tingling under the skin. The rash usually comes as small red spots that later turn into oozing blisters. These crust over in about a week to ten days and disappear entirely over a matter of weeks. A recurrence of herpes zoster is not common, but it does happen. Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely to strike three times.
Are There Any Effective Treatments?
If you’re over 50 or have an otherwise immunocompromised system, you should talk to your health care provider about getting vaccinated against herpes zoster. Like the vaccine for chickenpox, it is given in two doses and is quite effective in protecting against infection.
If you do become infected, there are oral antiviral medications that can help speed your recovery. Topical treatments can also help relieve much of the pain, itching, and inflammation associated with the infection. Applying a good shingles ointment as soon as you see the skin rash can help reduce the severity and length of the illness.
What makes a good shingles ointment different than others is its unique ability to penetrate the skin to deliver a potent concentration of medical-grade ingredients to infected areas. Some are available over the counter, non-steroidal, and made from natural ingredients; these ointments work to promote skin repair quickly.
If there are no further complications, the entire length of the illness can last for up to four or five weeks. During this time, beyond applying ointments, those suffering from herpes zoster can also help make themselves feel better by getting as much rest as possible, keeping a healthy diet, and participating in gentle exercise.