Shingles - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prevention & Treatment
Health Education

Fighting Shingles: Nerve Infection

Dr.Ramya Smitha profile Authored by Dr.Ramya Smitha on 20 Jul 2015 - 12:44.


Shingles is a viral infection of nerves caused by varicella zoster virus. It usually appears in a strip, a band or an area on the skin that is supplied by the affected nerve. It is mostly caused in the areas around the chest, abdomen and the upper part of the face. Although it is not a life threatening condition, it is very painful to tolerate. About one in every five, develop the condition at some point in their life. And rarely do people develop the condition more than once.

The causative agent, varicella zoster, is the same virus that is responsible for chicken pox. Even after getting treated from chicken pox, the virus can enter into the nervous system and lie there for several years before getting reactivated to cause Shingles. The virus in its reactivated phase can cause shingles but not chicken pox.

A person suffering from shingles can transmit the disease to others who are not immune to chicken pox, by direct contact of the affected site.

Symptoms are seen in the area served by a single or multiple affected nerves. The initial symptoms can be headache and sensitivity to light, which are followed by rash, pain, itching and tingling on the affected site. Other symptoms may include fever, chills, fatigue and general achiness.

When to see a doctor?

You should consult a doctor if you develop pain and rash, especially in areas surrounding vital organs such as eyes.

Shingles is usually diagnosed based on physical examination and patient’s history. However, in certain cases, your doctor may recommend Herpes test, which involves collection of skin scrapings from the affected area, to determine the cause of infection.


If treatment is delayed or ignored, the following may result:

  • Post-herpetic Neuralgia
  • Eye problems that may even lead to vision loss
  • Skin infections
  • Neurological problems such as encephalitis, facial paralysis or hearing/balance problems

As discussed before, patients who have had chicken pox can develop the condition. Other factors that may increase the risk are:

  • People more than 50 years of age
  • People suffering from diseases that may weaken their immune system
  • Usage of drugs for immune suppression (as in organ transplantation)
  • Stress or trauma

A new born baby may have higher risk of developing shingles for the first two years if her mother was suffering from chicken pox during pregnancy.

There is no cure for shingles, but immediate treatment may help lower the duration of illness and also prevent complications. The treatment goals is to ease pain and discomfort caused by the condition. The following drug classes can be used:

Anti-viral medications: These agents do not kill the virus but can prevent multiplication of virus, thereby limiting the duration of illness. These medicines are also believed to be helpful in relieving the pain. These drugs are recommended for use within 72 hours of development of rash and are mostly taken for a week. Some of the common drugs in this class are:

  • Acyclovir
  • Famcyclovir
  • Valacyclovir

Anti-depressants: These medicines are not prescribed here for depression, but for its nerve pain relieving property. Tricyclic class of anti-depressants like amitriptylne, nortryptiline and imipramine can be used.

Anti-convulsants: Some drugs such as gabapentin can be helpful in relieving nerve pain.

Steroids: Prednisolone and other drugs belonging to steroids category can be used to relieve pain and swelling. However it is not used commonly due to varied opinions from health experts.

Others: Numbing agents like lidocaine can be used topically over the affected area to ease the pain. OTC (over the counter) drugs including acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help reduce pain. Topical creams with anti-bacterial properties can be prescribed if the affected area gets infected with micro-organisms.

Lifestyle recommendations:

  • Avoid scratching and pricking blisters.
  • Sores can be dried by application of corn starch or baking soda to speed up the healing process.
  • Cool bath or cool compresses on the affected site can relieve the pain and itching.



Vaccines can help prevent you from the condition or at least reduce the symptoms if it cannot be prevented completely. These are:

*Disclaimer This is not medical advice. The content is for educational purposes only. Please contact your doctor for any health care issues.