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Herpes zoster (shingles) in simple English

Question from Debbie of San Diego, California:

Would like to have information regarding herpes zoster (shingles) in simple English.

Dear Debbie,

Thank you for your question regarding herpes zoster, also known as shingles. Herpes zoster is a painful skin condition common among people over age 50. It is caused by the same herpes virus that caused chicken pox during childhood. After causing chicken pox, this herpes virus lies dormant in the spinal nerves. For reasons unknown, the virus becomes reactivated in later life, multiplies, and travels along the distribution of the nerve to cause pain in the skin area supplied by that nerve. Several days later, multiple fluid filled blisters appear in the same skin area. Shingles can affect any part of the body, including the cornea of the eye. The fluid in the blisters contain the herpes virus, and are infectious until the blisters dry up in 2-3 weeks.

In most patients, the pain goes away when the blisters dry up. In 10% of the patients with herpes zoster, pain persist in the affected skin area for months to years. This prolonged painful condition is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Treatment of the painful skin blisters include good skin care and pain relievers. Antiviral medicines (Zovirax and Famvir) can shorten the duration of illness and probably decrease the chances of PHN if the medications are started early, preferably during the first 24 hours of blistering. For patients who develop post-herpetic neuralgia, medications used for depression or seizures are sometimes used to relieve pain.

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