Chickenpox is often seen as a harmless childhood disease, but it can eventually cause health decisions that may affect you for the rest of your life. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, and even after a person heals from chickenpox, the virus remains in the body. After being inactive for years, the varicella zoster virus can start to erupt in the nerves and skin, resulting in the painful rash called shingles. Roughly one out of three people will eventually get shingles during their lifetime, and sadly, many of the people affected by shingles will deal with this pain long after the rash has disappeared.
Why Does Shingles Cause Pain?
Shingles happens in roughly one third of the people who originally had chickenpox, and it occurs when the long dormant varicella zoster virus erupts again. After years of being inactive in the nerve cells of the spine, the virus can travel up nerve pathways to the skin, where it affects a wide range of skin cells and nerve cells along the skin. This causes a bumpy rash that is extremely painful and itchy.
Why Would a Person Still Feel Pain After Shingles Ends?
Unfortunately, for about 20 percent of the people who suffer from shingles, the pain does not end when the rash goes away. Persistent pain after shingles are gone is called postherpetic neuralgia. Medical researchers are not positive of why this pain happens, because the area that is pained is no longer infected with the shingles virus. However, it seems likely that the virus is somehow permanently damaging nerves, and these damaged nerves continue to send pain signals to the brain, long after the virus is gone. Typically, pain from shingles comes and goes for a short period of time after the rash disappears, but people who experience shingles-related pain for over a year are likely to have it for the rest of their life. This pain may be so bad that people experience sleep disorders, irritability, lowered libido, and even depression.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Postherpetic Neuralgia?
People who are more likely to develop postherpetic neuralgia are people who got shingles at an older age. More than half of all shingles victims who continue to feel pain for years are people who had shingles after the age of 60. Another risk factor is race, because people who are white seem to get both shingles and postherpetic neuralgia at a rate that is twice as high as other races who had chickenpox. Those who are in a weakened state of health, especially patients who have AIDS or take immunosuppressant drugs, are also more likely to still feel pain after shingles ends.
Are There Any Ways to Treat or Prevent Postherpetic Neuralgia?
The best way to avoid getting postherpetic neuralgia if you have shingles is to treat the shingles as soon as possible. Patients who take antiviral drugs in the first three days after developing shingles symptoms are far less likely to deal with pain after the shingles ends. There is also a vaccine that can prevent people from getting shingles in the first place, even if they have had chickenpox in the past. For people who do develop postherpetic neuralgia, topical anesthetic creams like lidocaine can provide relief from the constant sensations of pain. If the pain persists, doctors may prescribe antidepressant and opioid medications.