Symptoms and causes

Shingles is an infection of the skin with a virus, namely the varicella zoster virus. This virus usually also causes chicken pox during childhood. After someone has chickenpox, the virus remains in the nerve nodes of the body, present as it were, but dormant (i.e. latent). The virus can flare up again at any time and cause shingles.

Zona or shingles looks like a red band-shaped zone on the skin with blisters on the surface. Zona is contagious through the moisture from these vesicles. Once they have dried to crusts, they are no longer contagious. Zona occurs in a zone or area (i.e. dermatome) that is supplied by one particular nerve. This nerve originates from a nerve node where the virus resides.

It can be seen everywhere on the body but it usually shows on the trunk. It gives itching, but often also pain. It is nerve pain that can feel like burning, stinging, pricking and/or tingling. Even after the disappearance of the skin lesions, the pain may persist for several months to years. This is called post-herpetic pain. The risk of this nerve pain increases with age.

Diagnosis and treatment

The diagnosis of shingles or zona is made by the doctor based on what he or she sees on the skin and the symptoms the patient describes. If there are blisters, a swab is sometimes taken from the fluid in the blisters to confirm which virus is involved.

A mild form of shingles in a healthy person is not always treated. The immune system is capable of clearing the infection. Shingles treatment consists of antiviral medication. This is administered in tablet form or, when it is very extensive or the patient's immune system is suppressed, through IV.

In addition to the antiviral treatment, all patients are advised to dry up their skin lesions as soon as possible. These injuries normally heal without scars.

Since it is often a painful condition, treatment is also given to control the nerve pain. Traditional pain medication is often insufficietnt for this. We often need to give more targeted drugs, which is also used in cases of depression or epilepsy.

Treatment centres and specialisations

Dermatology

Latest publication date: 21/01/2021
Supervising author: Dr Van Autryve Els