Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a contagious virus that normally occurs during adulthood. The name zoster is the Greek word for girdle or belt, and this name was given to it because the rash is often in a strip or small area of the body. Shingles normally only occurs once in life, and is most common among people who have already had the chickenpox virus, or those with weakened immune systems.
There have been recorded incidents of shingles for over 100 years. It is thought that while the earliest cases of shingles are over 250 years old, it is difficult to tell how many there were because the shingles rash was confused with the rash present in smallpox and chickenpox. It was only in 1767 that scientist William Heberden was able to distinguish shingles from smallpox.
Shingles and Chickenpox Connection
In 1888, it was suggested by Viennese doctor Jonas Von Bokay that the shingles virus and the chickenpox virus came from the same bacterial group. This was because other doctors reported cases of chickenpox in the children of shingles patients. However, it was not until a study conducted by Thomas Weller in 1953 that this connection between the two was confirmed in lab conditions.
Shingles in the 20th Century
Popular opinion in the first part of the 20th century was that shingles was a painful but not life threatening condition with few complications during treatment. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, studies showed that shingles was a threat to those who were immune suppressed—people who had their immune systems diminished as part of treatment for a disease—and the elderly, whose immune systems were declining naturally.
The early symptoms of shingles are not unique to the disease. These can be as vague as headaches, dizziness and aversion to bright lights, but unlike other diseases, there is no fever. Itching occurs after one or two days, and the rash will appear at the site of the itching shortly afterward. The rash will be extremely painful to the touch, and the rash will evolve into blisters. The shingles rash is unique, so it is very easy for a doctor to diagnose the disease.
There is no direct cure for shingles; however, there are medications designed to curtail its effects and numb the pain of the shingles rash. Antiviral medication helps to prevent the disease from getting worse and cuts the risk of developing chronic pain and other complications from the disease.
Analgesic creams and over-the-counter painkillers work well to limit the pain caused by the rash, while antibiotics that are rubbed into the skin help to reduce the chance of having the rash become infected.