Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (often referred to as herpes zoster) which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. Shingles can appear years later as the virus becomes active again. The reason some people get shingles and not others is unknown, however, some studies suggest it may be due to lowered immunity to infections as you grow older.
Shingles is more common in older adults over age 65 and in people who have weak immune systems. According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, throughout the world the incidence rate of herpes zoster every year ranges from 1.2 to 3.4 cases per 1,000 healthy individuals, increasing to 3.9–11.8 per year per 1,000 individuals among those older than 65 years. While shingles is not usually life-threatening, it can be very painful and disabling for some.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is a good source of information on shingles. Their website says that before the rash develops, there is often pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will eventually develop. This may happen anywhere from one to five days before the rash appears. Other signs of shingles may include fever, headache, chills and upset stomach.
Both the CDC and the Mayo Clinic state that shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles, the varicella zoster virus, can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox. In these cases, the person exposed to the virus may develop chickenpox, but they would not develop shingles. The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters. Shingles cannot be spread through sneezing, coughing or casual contact. The person with shingles is not contagious before the rash or after the blisters have crusted over, but is only contagious during the blister phase.
If you have shingles, you should avoid touching the blisters to avoid spreading of the rash. You should wash your hands often, and keep the blisters covered as much as possible. Contact with pregnant women and persons with low immune systems should be avoided.
Treatment usually involves antiviral medicines. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. Doctors recommend treatment as soon as possible if you show signs of shingles. The medications are more effective with early treatment. Analgesics may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths are recommended to relieve the itching.
The CDC stresses, if left untreated, shingles may lead to serious complications involving the eyes. Very rarely, shingles can also lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.
References: www.cdc.gov/shingles; www.mayoclinic.com; www.healthyweb.com/shingles; www.en.wikipedia.com/shingles.
Pam Rasmussen is a resident of LaFayette. She is a mother of a child with Spina Bifida and an advocate of special needs children and adults. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.