MOUNT VERNON — Cases of the viral disease shingles have been reported in the national media lately, prompting concern for this painful condition, particularly in the elder population.
Shingles is a blistering skin rash caused by the varicella virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Sharing information recently with the News about shingles and the varicella virus was Jackie Fletcher, Director of Family and Community Health Services at the Knox County Health Department.
Fletcher explained that after individuals have chickenpox, the varicella virus remains inactive in certain nerves in their system. “Once you get older and your immune system is not what it once was, the varicella virus can re-emerge, but it doesn’t come back as chickenpox. It emerges as shingles,” said Fletcher.
Shingles first appear as a one-sided pain, tingling or burning, which can become severe. Most victims then develop a rash, or red patches on the skin, followed by blisters. Numerous cases from those who have contracted shingles have been known to be very painful. “Some people will get these down their back or under their breast, but also the trigeminal nerve is in your face and runs very close to your eye. So in some instances, it can cause blindness,” said Fletcher.
Those who have a weak immune system or those who over the age of 60 are more likely to develop the condition of shingles. “If your immune system is somewhat suppressed, say if you are under stress or have other issues going on, it can cause it to re-emerge,” said Fletcher.
Damage to the nerves is often a possibility following shingles. “Once the shingles die down, they can leave you with neuropathy because it attacks a nerve,” said Fletcher.
The virus can be spread person to person by direct contact or through airborne spread of fluid. “But it’s usually caused by person-to-person contact,” said Fletcher. “If you have shingles and are around someone who has not had chickenpox, you can pass the virus on to them, and they will get chickenpox.”
A herpes zoster vaccine is available to help prevent people from contracting the shingles virus. Those who have already had a case of shingles, can still get a shingles vaccine, according to Fletcher. “They could re-occur any time,” she said.
Once a case of shingles is contracted, health care providers may prescribe medicines that can help reduce the pain, prevent complications or shorten the duration of the disease. It is best if these are applied before blisters appear. Other recommendations are to use cool, wet compresses on the skin to reduce pain. Soothing baths and lotions can also to relieve itching and discomfort. Patients are also recommended to get much rest in bed until the fever subsides.
On top of getting a vaccine to prevent getting shingles, Fletcher offered the recommendations to “Keep yourself as healthy as you can. Eat right, and get plenty of sleep.”
Dr. Amy Murnen told the News that she does see cases of shingles quite often at her practice. “They often come in clusters. I may go months without seeing a case and then see two or three cases in the same week,” said Murnen.
Murnen stated that it is important to get treatment within the first 48 hours of development of the rash. There are anti-viral medications that, when started within 48 hours, will lessen the likelihood of severe prolonged pain. “There now is a vaccine called Zostavax which can reduce the likelihood of shingles outbreak by about 65 percent,” she said. “It is approved for adults over 50 and recommended for adults over the age of 60.”