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Living in Fear of Shingles Pain

Learn how prevention and treatment of shingles can reduce pain and side effects

HEALTH GOES STRONG
ROBYN FLIPSE

If, like me, you have a low pain threshold, then shingles is on your radar. It's described as one of the most painful conditions you can be cursed with, often accompanied by the word "excruciating." As if that weren't bad enough, there is no cure. Some people experience "severe" pain that can last for years.

Being a wimp, I made a point to learn everything I could about shingles.

Risk of Getting Shingles

The biggest factor that raises your risk of developing shingles is having had chicken pox.  With it comes a 10% to 30% lifetime chance you'll get shingles because the varicella-zoster virus that causes chicken pox remains dormant in the body after chicken pox have healed.

As we age, the risk increases due, in part, to a weakening of the immune system. By age 85 the risk increases to 50%. Of the 1 million cases of shingles diagnosed in the U.S. each year, half of them are in people over the age of 60, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Diseases that weaken the immune system, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS, also make us more vulnerable, along with immune-blocking treatments, such as chemotherapy and the anti-rejection drugs used after organ transplants.

The only good news here is that you cannot catch shingles from someone who has it, but if you never had chicken pox, you can get them from being around someone with shingles.

Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

  • The first sign is a tingling or burning sensation on the skin, much like a mild sunburn that makes the skin sensitive to touch.
  • Within a few days a red rash will appear on one side of the body, the neck or face.
  • A few days later the rash will be covered with fluid-filled blisters.
  • After 3-4 days the blisters dry up and crust over, but the redness remains.
  • The whole episode can last from 3-5 weeks from when the rash first appears.

Prevention and Treatment of Shingles

  • The CDC recommends those age 60 and older get the shingles vaccine, called Zostavax. It is given as an injection and can protect the body from reactivation of the virus, much like getting a tetanus booster.
  • It is still possible to develop shingles once you've had the vaccine, but your case may not last as long or be as severe compared to people who were not vaccinated.
  • If a rash does appear on your body and there is no other logical explanation for it, see your doctor immediately so you can be diagnosed and begin treatment, if it is shingles, before the blisters appear. Early use of anti-viral medication, such as acyclovir or valacyclovir, can help prevent the shingles from multiplying, speed the drying of the blisters, and reduce some of the pain.
  • Prescription pain medication may also be needed and antibiotics if blisters become infected.

Complications From Shingles

  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a serious complication that strikes about 1 in 5 people with shingles.  It causes debilitating pain that can linger for months or even years in the area where the rash first appeared. The unrelenting pain of PHN can lead to depression, sleeplessness and an inability to carry on normal daily activities. In these cases, other medications may be needed to more aggressively treat the pain and disability that goes with it.
  • There is a risk of the blisters becoming infected, so it is important to keep that area clean and free from exposure to irritants.
  • Shingles that develops on the face can be critical if it spreads near the eyes, as it may cause blindness.
  • Hearing loss, pneumonia, and inflammation of the brain are also dangerous complications.

If you have pockmarks from your childhood case of chickenpox, let them be a reminder to keep your immune system strong and get vaccinated to prevent shingles.