Release Date: 5/12/2011
Shingles caused by same virus as chickenpox
Suffering through chickenpox is bad enough – the itching, coughing and achy feeling. It hardly seems fair that the same virus can re-attack you years later as shingles.
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, manifests itself as an extremely painful, blistering rash that affects an estimated one million Americans each year, half of them aged 60 and older. Only people who have had chickenpox in the past or who have had the chickenpox vaccine can contract shingles. The virus that causes chickenpox remains in the body, lying dormant in spinal nerve cells, but held in check by the body’s immune system. Conditions that weaken the immune system, like aging, cancer or certain drugs, may trigger the virus into becoming active again, resulting in shingles. However, MOST patients with shingles do not have a problem with their immune system or have any serious underlying medical condition.
The first sign of shingles often is a localized area of pain or tenderness, followed by a red rash a few days later. Other symptoms that may occur with the onset of shingles include fatigue, body aches and a mild fever. The rash – which always is located only on one side of the body – turns into fluid-filled blisters, which generally crust over and fall off in one to four weeks. The rash usually occurs on the chest, back and abdominal areas. In 10-20 percent of cases, the rash may involve one side of the face, affecting the forehead, scalp, nose and eye. This is a more serious form of shingles, called herpes zoster ophthalmicus. When shingles affects the eyes, it can cause swelling of the eyelids, redness and pain, and can leave scars that permanently affect vision and can lead to glaucoma, a serious eye disease than can cause blindness.
Other possible complications of shingles include scarring, hearing loss, bacterial skin infections, paralysis of one side of the face, muscle weakness and pain from the slightest touch of the skin.
Unfortunately, the pain may last from a few weeks to several months – or even years, in severe cases. Long-term nerve pain hurts more and lasts longer in older adults. When the pain of shingles lasts longer than four months, it is referred to as postherpetic neuralgia.
To treat your shingles, your doctor may prescribe an anti-viral agent, a steroid medicine to reduce pain and swelling and/or an over-the-counter pain relieving medication like acetaminophen or ibuprophen. Patients with long-lasting pain (post herpetic neuralgia) may require further treatment, including prescription pain medication and/or referral to a pain specialist.
While shingles is not contagious, the chickenpox virus lives in the blisters from shingles and can be spread until the blisters are healed. Anyone who has not already had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine may be at risk of contracting the virus from you.
The bad news is that once you have recovered from a bout of shingles, you are not immune from further attacks. Since shingles is caused by a reactivation of the dormant virus in your nerves, it may occur again, especially at times when you are run down. Each attack may affect a different part of the body.
Treatment for shingles should begin as soon as possible, so be sure to see your doctor right away if you suspect you have shingles.
A vaccine, Zostavax, is available for use in preventing shingles and postherpetic neuralgia. Previously, the vaccination was approved for patients 60 years of age and older. On March 24, 2011, the FDA approved the Zostavax vaccination for people 50 years of age and older, for those who quality. This single-dose immunization has not been studied in persons with a history of shingles and is not used to treat shingles or postherpetic neuralgia. Check with your doctor if you have questions regarding Zostavax or if you think you may be a candidate for it.
For information, please call our Health Access Line at 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 800-554-9550 or visit find a physician online.
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