Unusual Symptoms of Shingles

Female Doctors Consulting About Patient's X-ray in Consulting Room
Two doctors consult over an X-ray of a pair of lungs. (Image: likstudio/iStock/Getty Images)

Shingles is a common name for the disease known as herpes zoster. It results, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, when the virus that causes chicken pox reactivates within clusters of sensory nerves near the spinal cord. Shingles usually produces symptoms similar to chicken pox, namely a blistering rash and a mild, flu-like illness. Occasionally, involvement of the internal organs leads to unusual symptoms of shingles.

Lungs

Shingles, like chicken pox, infrequently causes inflammation of the tissue of the lungs, resulting in viral pneumonia. According to University of Alabama Medical School Professor Richard J. Whitely, pneumonia due to shingles usually presents three to five days after other symptoms of shingles. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, increased breath rate and fever. Many patients also complain of chest pain associated with inspiration or coughing up small amounts of blood. Pneumonia due to shingles usually improves along with skin symptoms. However, says Whitely, patients may experience fever and persistent mild breathing problems for weeks.

Liver

Hepatitis results when the virus attacks the liver. Since the liver is bound by a fibrous outer covering known as Glisson’s capsule, swelling in the liver is directed inward, occluding the ducts that drain bile, resulting in the most recognizable symptom of hepatitis: jaundice. Jaundice typically manifests as yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, often accompanied by itching. Other symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health, include fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low grade fever and headache. Like pneumonia, says Whitely, hepatitis appears a few days after other symptoms of shingles become established. Also like pneumonia, complete recovery often takes weeks.

Central Nervous System

Shingles can strike the brain, the lining of the spinal cord--called the meninges--or the spinal cord itself. Symptoms that suggest central nervous system involvement include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, nausea and vomiting. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, symptoms usually start suddenly and quickly progress to involve changes in personality, behavior and arousal. Patients may be more irritable than normal, exhibit mental confusion or impaired judgment and they may have problems waking up or staying awake. Since the patient may not be able to call on his own, friends or family members should seek medical attention on the patient’s behalf.

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