August 17, 2008

Shingles - Revenge of the chicken pox

Just in case anyone gets the idea that shingles is some rare tropical disease, I wanted to tell you a little more about it. Up to a million cases are reported each year in the US.

When someone gets chicken pox (varicella), the virus that causes it remains dormant in your system throughout your life. The good news about that is that you cannot get chicken pox again. The bad news is that the virus (Herpes zoster) can reemerge, usually after many decades, to attack the nerves in the body and eventually produce a blistery rash which follows along one or more nerve paths.

The blisters grow and the rash becomes more hideous over a 1-3 week period. The blisters pop, then fill with pus and then blood, and eventually scab over. Extreme pain occurs in the affected area which can continue long after the rash disappears, due to the damaged nerves. Some people experience the pain for months or even years afterward. Generally, most people experience shingles only once in their life, but for an unfortunate few, it reoccurs.

You might ask, "Well, just how painful can a rash be?" It isn't the rash that is so painful, it is the nerve pain under the skin. The virus damages the nerves and causes them to 'misfire'. Some people compare it to being electrocuted. Others say it is like having several root canals each day. One woman said she would rather give birth ten times than have shingles again.

I'm sure there are different degrees of shingles and I suppose that the area of the body involved affects the type of pain as well. I have to believe that getting it in the face and head have to be the worst! It is potentially the most serious as the virus can infect the eye and ear and can result in permanent vision or hearing damage.

There is no cure for shingles, but there are antiviral medications which help to prevent the virus from spreading and help to decrease the duration and the intensity of the disease. To be effective, the treatment must begin in the first 72 hours after appearance of the rash, preferably in the first 48 hours.

There is also a new vaccine to prevent shingles, which IRONICALLY, an American doctor friend in La Ceiba suggested that I get about six months ago, but he said it was for those 60 and older so I didn't think I needed it. I really meant to check into it and find out what shingles was but as his email slipped "below the fold" and eventually to the never-never land of the second page, it was forgotten. D, you told me so, and oh, how I regret that I didn't listen.

I really, really recommend that everyone research the shingles vaccine and decide if you can or should get it. I've read that it costs $250 in the US and is not always covered by insurance, but that may not be current information. Still, no matter what the costshingles is NOT something that you want to get. Trust me on that. If your insurance doesn't cover drugs, you could easily spend more on drugs than the cost of the vaccine.

There is a lot of information about shingles on the internet. Medline is very good and Rosemary Appleton's write up of her 4-year experience is harrowing. Her site also includes a list of shingles-related links at the end.

Medline - Shingles

Demon's Hand

My personal experience is here.
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