Most folks have heard the term “shingles,” but they may not realize what it entails.
“Shingles is a rash a person gets when their body is overly stressed or their immune system is weakened, either from disease such as cancer or medication such as chemotherapy or steroids,” said Jill Keys, a nurse at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. Before someone can get shingles, they must have had chicken pox at some point in their life. “The chicken pox disease lays dormant in their body until the time they are overly stressed or their immune system is weakened, and then it comes out as shingles,” Keys said.
Dr. Kristy Deep, an internal medicine physician at the University of Kentucky, said one out of three people in the United States gets shingles. She said the slight increase in cases of shingles is believed to be due to the lower incidence of children getting chicken pox. Consequently, adults are not being re-exposed to the virus that causes chicken pox and constantly boosting their immune system against shingles.
Deep said shingles can be treated with an antiviral medicine, Acyclovir, which helps decrease the pain and severity of the disease. The key is to start treatment early so it is most effective and to see your health care provider if you have pain or a rash to rule out the possibility of shingles.
“A lot of times people do not know initially what they are developing,” Keys said. “Shingles starts off with the same symptoms as other illnesses, like fever, headaches, chills and stomach ache, and as it progresses, the patient breaks out in a rash.” Shingles can last from two to four weeks.
Consult your family doctor to make sure the problem is shingles. “Typically the doctor will examine you, talk about how long the rash has been going on, what other symptoms you have and if you have been exposed to anything,” Keys said. “Then he or she will coordinate the clinical findings with what they see.”
Shingles is most common in those over age 50. A vaccine is now available for people age 60 and older to fight shingles. You cannot be immune compromised because it is a live vaccine. This means if you are on chemotherapy, you cannot receive the vaccine.
“The only other requirement before receiving the vaccine is that you have had chicken pox,” said Keys. “The main side effects or risks associated with the vaccine are the same as with other immunizations: redness, soreness, swelling and itching at the site.”
There is nothing you can do to prevent shingles, other than trying to stay as healthy as possible. Shingles is not contagious. “If you are around someone who has shingles and you never had chicken pox, it is possible you could get chicken pox,” said Keys. If you had chicken pox and someone has shingles, it does not put you at risk.
By Jamie Lober, Staff Writer, Kentucky Doc Magazine