What exactly is shingles?
Shingles is a surprisingly common viral infection caused by the same virus as chickenpox, herpes varicella zoster. Most children catch chickenpox, as there is no vaccine for it, and the virus then lies dormant in the nerve ganglia (a junction box between the nerves). However, it can suddenly be triggered into activity, causing shingles. The virus moves along the path of a nerve, often around the trunk of one side of the body from the back to the centre of the abdomen, and occasionally on to the side of the face.
How do you know if you have shingles?
Shingles begins with a specific area of pain over the skin, often described as a burning, tingling or stabbing pain. This is then followed by a rash that begins as a cluster of red spots, before these form small fluid-filled blisters that eventually crust over.
How common is shingles?
Compared to other infections, shingles is relatively common. The risk of shingles increases with age: between the ages of 50 and 54, around one in 300 people will develop the condition and by the time we are in our late 70s, the risk doubles. Some research suggests more women develop shingles than men.
Is it true cases among millennials are on the rise?
Shingles appears to be on the rise in the UK across all age groups. Theories for this abound, but include the fact that more people are living with weakened immunity, chronic disease and greater stress. Numerous studies have shown stress is a risk factor for developing shingles. Mental stress is known to suppress our natural immunity, which is thought to allow the dormant chickenpox virus to re-activate as shingles. A recent study found that 74% of British adults have felt so stressed during the last year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope; this number shoots up to 83% when solely looking at 18 to 24-year olds.
Is shingles contagious?
You can’t catch shingles from someone who is infected. However, if you have shingles, you can pass on chickenpox to someone who has not previously been infected.
What is the main treatment for shingles?
There is a vaccination that can reduce the risk of developing shingles but it’s only available for over 70s on the NHS. There is also an antiviral treatment, Aciclovir, which can treat shingles and is available as a tablet. To be most effective, it should first be taken within 72 hours of the rash appearing. If you suspect you have shingles, you should see your GP as soon as possible.
How long does shingles last?
Around five to seven days after the rash appears, it will begin to crust over. However, it can take up to four weeks for the rash to settle completely and the skin can be painful for weeks after it disappears.
So, what can we do to prevent it?
It pays to maintain a balanced, healthy diet to keep immunity high, and this includes having strategies for managing stress in your life. Constantly feeling run down, light-headedness and shortness of breath, tummy problems, and brain fog are all lesser-known symptoms of high stress levels. If this sounds familiar, try increasing your physical activity and incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your routine – both have been shown to significantly relieve stress levels, in turn boosting the immune system.
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