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Shingles: Know the facts

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Shingles is a common viral illness caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, but with very different – and agonizing – symptoms. Its blistering rash is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, but flu-like symptoms and severe pain are sure signs that it’s not your garden-variety skin rash. The virus strikes the highly sensitive nerve roots, and feels like needles piercing the skin.

Serious complications can result from shingles. The most common of which is a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia. “It can cause debilitating pain lasting for months or even years,” explains Virtua family medicine physician Elaine Beppel, MD.

“We are also vigilant for shingles in or around the eye which may lead to vision loss.” Other serious complications include hearing or balance problems, facial paralysis and serious skin infections.

While shingles will disappear on its own, medical attention can limit the course and severity as well as help manage the pain. “There’s no cure for the virus, but early treatment with anti-viral drugs can help the immune system to prevent it from reproducing as quickly,” says Dr. Beppel. “Patients do best when we see them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.”

The chickenpox connection
Though they’re caused by the same virus, chickenpox and shingles are different. After a bout of childhood chickenpox, the virus that causes both chicken pox and shingles remains dormant in the nerves. “Although we have some immunity to the virus, the virus can  become active again as herpes zoster, or shingles in times of stress,” says Dr. Beppel. And since most of us have either had chickenpox or the vaccine for chickenpox, shingles is very common.

Prevention
A shingles vaccine is available for people over age 60, the largest risk group, with healthy immune systems. The vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of getting shingles by up to 50 percent, but for those who still get it, there’s a lower incidence of long-term nerve pain or
other complications.

 

Fast facts about shingles

  • People over age 60 who have had chickenpox, or those with immunesuppressing conditions or undergoing chemotherapy are at risk.
  • Shingles can be contagious at a certain point of the illness, but not in the same way as a cold, the flu or chickenpox is contagious.
  • A vaccine is available.