Viral skin infections: key facts and risks to know

Viral skin infections come in all shapes and sizes, but with exception of psoriasis, they rarely cause long-term problems. However, they're not pretty and they can be painful and distressing. Read on to reduce your risks.

The trouble with skins is that they're awfully difficult to hide. People who suffer from psoriasis (a non-infectious skin condition that causes flaking and redness of the skin) often say that other people's reaction is the most distressing part of the condition. Viral skin infections come in all shapes and sizes, but unlike psoriasis, they rarely cause long-term problems. However, they're not pretty and they can be painful and distressing. Read on to reduce your risks.

Warts

Warts and verrucas are caused by the same viral infection, and the only difference is where they appear. They usually appear on your hands and are very common - about one in 10 people have warts or verrucas at any time. You can pass them on to others, although this isn't that common.

Your own immune system will eventually fight off the viral infection and the warts will disappear without treatment. However, that can take a year or two (or even longer if you get them in adulthood). In the meantime, you can spread them to other parts of your body if you scratch them, bite your nails or suck your fingers.

Mild acid treatments from your pharmacist or GP usually get rid of them (although it may take a few months and you need to apply daily, taking care not to touch surrounding skin). If that doesn't work, your GP may 'freeze' them off with liquid nitrogen.

Verrucas

Verrucas are just warts on your feet, although they often hurt, as walking presses them into your flesh. They're more easily caught if skin is soggy or damaged, so swimming pools are common places to catch them. To avoid catching them or passing them on, don't share towels; wear flip-flops in communal areas; cover them with a plaster if you go swimming; and change your socks daily.

Cold sores

Most people catch cold sores in childhood, and once you're infected with the virus it stays in your system. Many people never get symptoms again, but some get more cold sores from time to time, especially if they're under stress, ill for another reason or are out in the sunshine. Tingling for up to a day is followed by blisters, often around your lips and nose. Over the next few days they scab over and eventually heal. Cold sores are highly catching from the time you feel the tingling.

Antiviral creams (from your pharmacist or GP) work best if you catch the sore early, ideally at the 'tingly' stage. They don't cure it but help it go faster. For severe or very frequent cold sores, your GP may advise antiviral tablets. To avoid complications, wear lip balm with a high sun protection factor (SPF) in the sun, never pick cold sores, wash your hands often and never touch your eyes when you have a cold sore.

Chickenpox

Ninety per cent of kids get chickenpox. Your child will be grizzly for a day or two before blisters like raindrops with reddened skin underneath appear. The fever often settles once the spots arrive, but the rash is intensely itchy and can be highly distressing for five to seven days. Soothing gels like Virasoothe® and 'drowsy-making' antihistamines will relieve itch, while paracetamol (not ibuprofen) will help with soreness - speak to your pharmacist. Complications are rare but potentially serious. Watch out for breathing problems; drowsiness or weakness; convulsions; a rash which looks like bleeding under the skin; or becoming more unwell after starting to get better.

Shingles

As with the cold sore virus, once you've had chickenpox the virus lives on in your system, in this case in nerve roots near your spinal cord. Later in life it can start multiplying again, causing the painful shingles 'band' of blisters and scabbing. A band of pain usually starts two to three days before blisters appear, usually on your chest or tummy (and always on just one side). You may feel unwell and feverish.

One in five people get shingles at some point, usually when they're over 50. Although shingles usually settles within two to four weeks, it can cause severe nerve pain which occasionally lasts months or even years. See your doctor as soon as possible, because antiviral tablets at this early stage can reduce the risk of complications.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.