Did You Have Chickenpox?

If you did, you are at risk for shingles.


Shingles is a painful skin condition caused by the same virus, herpes zoster, that causes chickenpox. When you are first infected by the virus, you get chickenpox, the nasty “childhood” illness that causes itchy blisters that eventually scab and fall off. Once you are over chickenpox, the virus does not go away. It retreats to your nerves where it lies dormant for years or decades. However, under certain conditions (such as advancing age or illness), it can be reactivated. The reactivated virus will then cause shingles.


Since the virus has been reactivated on your nervous system, the first symptoms are often vague – numbness, tingling or a burning sensation. However, the first symptoms can also be far from vague. The first symptom can be extreme pain. Depending on which nerve was the site of the reactivation, the pain may mimic the pain of appendicitis, kidney stones or even a heart attack. Shingles is finally diagnoses when the virus, which has traveled along the nerve, finally reaching the skin. At that point the characteristic chickenpox-like rash erupts. However, there is one difference from the chickenpox rash. The rash of shingles is painful. As with chickenpox, the rash should not be scratched or touched because this can lead to infection and can leave scars.


Shingles itself is not contagious. You can not get shingles from someone who has it. Shingles starts within a person’s own body. However, someone who has shingles can “give” chickenpox to someone, if that person has never had chickenpox.


Shingles generally lasts four to five weeks from the time the rash appears. People who are in general good health recover, though the course of the illness is not pleasant. However, people with a weakened immune system can get various complications. As we age our immune system weakens. That’s why over 50% of shingles cases occur in people over 60. Most people get shingles only once, but it can re-occur.


Treatment for shingles can include anti-viral medication. However, this medication must be given within 48 hours of the beginning of symptoms. Other treatment focuses on pain control while the illness runs its course.


Pain. Rash. Migrating virus. What’s the good news? The good news is that since 1995 there has been a vaccine against chickenpox. That means fewer cases of chickenpox and, eventually, fewer cases of shingles. Also, since 2006 there has been a vaccine against shingles. This vaccine is available to people 60 and older. LINK


The moral? If you are over 60, get vaccinated. If you have young children, have them vaccinated.


Health – it’s about prevention.


For more information on shingles visit http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/shingles.html.


Mary Lou Bernardo, PhD, MSN


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