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Management of herpes zoster (shingles) and postherpetic neuralgia

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    • Abstract:
      Herpes zoster (HZ) results from recrudescence of varicella zoster virus latent since primary infection (varicella). The overall incidence of HZ is ∼ 3/1000 of the population per year rising to 10/1000 per year by 80 years of age. Approximately 50% of individuals reaching 90 years of age will have had HZ. In ∼ 6%, a second attack may occur (usually several decades after the first). Patients with HZ can transmit the virus to a non-immune individual causing varicella. HZ is not contracted from individuals with varicella or HZ. Reduced cell-mediated immunity to HZ occurs with ageing, explaining the increased incidence in the elderly and from other causes such as tumours, HIV and immunosuppressant drugs. Diagnosis is usually clinical from typical unilateral dermatomal pain and rash. Prodromal symptoms, pain, itching and malaise, are common. The most common complication of HZ is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), defined as significant pain or dysaesthesia present ≥ 3 months after HZ. PHN results from damage and secondary changes within components of the nervous system subserving pain. Some motor deficit is common; severe and long-lasting paresis may rarely accompany HZ. More than 5% of elderly patients have PHN at 1 year after acute HZ. Predictors of PHN are, greater age, acute pain and rash severity, prodromal pain, the presence of virus in peripheral blood as well as adverse psychosocial factors. Therapy for acute HZ is intended to reduce acute pain, hasten rash healing and reduce the risk of PHN and other complications. Antiviral drugs are close to achieving these aims but do not entirely remove risk of PHN. Oral steroids show no protective effect against PHN. Adequate analgesia during the acute phase may require strong opioid drugs. Nerve blocks and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) may reduce the risk of PHN although firm evidence is lacking. PHN requires thorough evaluation and development of a management strategy for each individual patient. Initial therapy is with TCAs (e.g., nortriptyline) or the anticonvulsant gabapentin. Topical lidocaine patches frequently reduce allodynia. Strong opioids are sometimes required. Topical capsaicin cream is beneficial for a small proportion of patients but is poorly tolerated. NMDA antagonists have not proved beneficial with the exception of ketamine. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) may be effective in some cases. HZ is a common condition. Severe complications such as stroke, encephalitis and myelitis are relatively rare whereas sight threatening complications of ophthalmic HZ are more common. PHN is common, distressing and often intractable. Good management improves outcome.