You or someone close to you may have recently had a herpes zoster and is that, according to the National Center of Epidemiology of the ISCIII, in recent years there has been an increase in cases in Spain.

The cause of herpes zoster is the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox and in both cases preventable thanks to vaccination. Chickenpox usually occurs in childhood and there is a vaccine that has been given to children for years.

Herpes zoster arises because the same virus that caused chickenpox remains latent in the body, reactivates and can cause this infection in adulthood, although it is not clear why herpes zoster develops. It could be due to a low immunity to infections with age.

Herpes zoster is characterized by a acne painful, and which can sometimes be complicated by prolonged neuralgia, the so-called post-herpetic neuralgia, with encephalitis, pneumonia, hearing problems and eye complications with temporary or permanent loss of vision.

Currently, vaccination against herpes zoster in Spain is recommended for groups of people with weakened immune systems, specifically transplant recipients, those affected by HIV, and people receiving certain medications to treat inflammatory diseases and cancer. In addition, given the increase in cases and the risks in the elderly, vaccination is recommended for people over 65 years of age.

Can it be contagious?

A person with shingles can transmit the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who is not immune to chickenpox. It is usually caused by direct contact with the open sores from the rash that causes shingles. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, once infected, a person will get chickenpox instead of shingles.

What are the symptoms

  • Itching sensation or pain usually in the trunk.
  • Four or five days later there is a reddening of the skin in that area where vesicles appear in groups.
  • In this phase, the lesions are highly contagious, as the virus is inside the vesicles.
  • After 7 to 10 days, the lesions dry out, forming yellowish-brown crusts that are removed, sometimes leaving a residual scar.
  • The most affected territories are the trunk, thigh or eye region. The latter is more serious, as there is a risk of formation of corneal ulcers that lead to blindness.
  • Sometimes, after an episode of herpes zoster, there may be residual pain in that area that lasts for days, months and even years, called post-herpetic neuralgia. (Source: University Clinic of Navarra)

Is there any treatment?

The treatment of herpes zoster is done with antiviral drugs orally or intravenously, but it is not always necessary to treat it, as it resolves spontaneously in about 7 days, according to specialists from the ClĂ­nica Universidad de Navarra.

Treatment is mainly indicated in immunosuppressed patients, due to the risk of spreading the virus to other organs. In these patients it is necessary to use the intravenous route for treatment.

Treatment with oral antivirals is also indicated in patients older than 50 yearsto reduce the possibility of developing postherpetic neuralgia (brivudine, aciclovir, valaciclovir, famciclovir).

It is important to point out that the treatment is effective if start in first 72 hours since the onset of vesicles and that superinfection of the lesions should be avoided with the use of topical antiseptics.

Postherpetic neuralgia, if it occurs, can be treated with pain relievers, and if it does not improve, other medications such as antiepileptics or antidepressants can be used.