Remember when you were a child and came down with chickenpox? Remember how it itched, and you had a fever and felt miserable? Maybe you don’t remember, but if you have shingles now, you had chickenpox as a child, and the virus has come back to haunt you.
Chickenpox, or Varicella, never leaves your body after you have the illness. Instead, it retreats into the spinal nerves, moving up close to the spinal cord, where it stays. Then, many years later, long after you’ve forgotten about the chickenpox, the virus can move out along one of the spinal nerves to cause distress to you again.
The disease’s name comes from the Latin word, cingulus, which means “girdle” or “belt”. When the rash surfaces, it often appears on the body’s trunk on one side, looking something like half a belt or girdle. Rarely does it develop on both sides of the body. This is because it follows the spinal nerve out to the skin and, therefore, appears only in the skin area that is innervated by that particular spinal nerve. Varicella is a cousin of the notorious Herpes virus. The Varicella virus has also been called Herpes zoster.
But what causes the Varicella zoster virus to reappear so many years after the first infection suddenly? That’s hard to say. There is evidence that anything that affects the immune system can cause zoster to emerge. Here are some examples.
- Becoming older, especially once you get past age 50, is a risk factor. Your immune system does not improve with age.
- Diseases that affect the body’s immunity, such as cancer or HIV infection, also weaken the immune system.
- Medications, especially steroids and chemotherapy, diminish the body’s ability to defend itself.
- Skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis are also indications of immune system problems. People with these conditions are not only at higher risk for developing shingles, but they are also at higher risk for developing serious consequences of the virus.
- There is a lot of evidence that stress, whether it be emotional or physical, can be a risk factor for zoster.
- The majority of people, however, do not have any known risk factors when the rash breaks out.
What is a cold sore?
Cold sores, sometimes called fever blisters, are rashes, usually localized to the lips and mouth, and caused by a virus called Herpes simplex Type 1. Herpes Simplex Type 2 is the virus that routinely produces the sexually transmitted disease in the genital area. But either virus can be transmitted during oral sex.
What are the differences between the two viral rashes?
- Cold sores look like the Varicella rash in some ways. Both rashes are red and consist of small blisters, filled with fluid. But the cold sores tend to be circular.
- The Varicella rash is stretched out along the distribution of the spinal nerve, giving it a linear pattern.
- Cold sores generally appear on the lips. In young children, the lesions can develop inside the mouth, which is very painful.
- Varicella zoster can reappear anywhere from the toes to the scalp.
- Once a cold sore has healed, the pain usually disappears.
- One of the worst problems with Varicella is that the pain can persist and even get worse. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia and it can last for months or even years.
What are the similarities?
- Both rashes give a little warning before they surface with tingling or itching in the area where the blisters are about to break out.
- In both diseases, the rash emerges a few hours or days after the sensory symptoms appear.
- Both rashes tend to be painful, sometimes intensely so.
- Both viral infections can recur. You can have recurrent cold sores or Varicella.
Both rashes can have serious consequences. The fluid in the blisters contains the virus. Touching the lesion and then rubbing your eyes can cause infection in the eye, sometimes leading to permanent damage and loss of vision.
Another secondary infection, especially with cold sores, is the herpetic whitlow. This is an outbreak of the blisters on the fingertips from touching the lesion. These infections can also recur.
Complications of cold sores in individuals with eczema can be severe. Eczema herpeticum is the cold sore infection spread all over the body. This can result in organ failure and death.
The treatment for both viral rashes is similar. You need to contact your doctor to get appropriate treatment. Antiviral medications help shorten the length of the affliction and reduce the severity in both cases. But the antiviral meds are only effective if you start on them within three days of the rash outbreak.
Shingles creams are also available to help the healing process. A good shingles cream is a homeopathic medication containing natural ingredients, no chemicals or artificial preservatives. It will be effective with both the varicella rash and cold sores.
It is imperative to get started on treatment within 72 hours of rash emergence. The oral medications become less effective after that time. The shingles cream remains effective throughout the illness.
In order to prevent the development of recurrent Varicella, the best course is to get vaccinated against the virus. Talk to your doctor about prevention today.