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Shingles - A Painful Disease that Affects Both the Young and the Elderly

Updated on May 4, 2017

Shingles or herpes zoster, also called ganglionitis, is a viral infection that affects the roots of the nerves. It is a common illness that strikes one in every five Americans and is caused by the reactivation of a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. The name shingles comes from the Latin word cingulum, which means belt or girdle.

With the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus comes ganglionitis, the major complication of this disease which is given the clinical term, zoster.

Shingles sufferers experience a tingling sensation and pain before a sore, and notice the appearance of a blistery rash that runs like a line or belt around their waist area which is the most common occurrence of the disease. Other common sites are the face, scalp and the chest. The rash lasts for several weeks.

Shingles is painful, sometimes itchy, develops crusts, and then disappears in uncomplicated cases. For others, shingles can lead to bizarre sensations that can linger for a long while. A Johns Hopkins University neurologist experienced a phantom feeling called dysesthesia, in which he had the sensation of cold water running down the side of his face.


How do you get shingles and why do they occur among the elderly population?

After having chicken pox, a small amount of virus takes refuge in the nerve bundles near the spine, particularly the sensory ganglia, remaining dormant for many years. Scientists think that a decline in the activity of white blood cells in the immune system allows the virus to re-emerge and causes this painful disease. The increased incidence of shingles not only occur among the elderly, but also in children with leukemia, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients who take immuno-suppressive drugs and people with HIV infection and basically those with weak immune system.

Herpes Zoster and the elderly

For about half of the population aged 60 and older and those with compromised immune systems, shingles can result to post-herpetic neuralgia, a condition in which the skin where the rash has appeared becomes extremely sensitive. Patients complain that a drop of water is like a third-degree burn and even the softest clothing becomes unbearable where the rash has appeared.

If shingles is left untreated, the risk of complications greatly increases, particularly for older people and those with compromised immune systems. Three different studies have shown that without treatment, a quarter of people aged 55 and older with shingles will develop post-herpetic neuralgia, as will half of those aged 60 and older and nearly three-quarters of those aged 70 and older. Almost half of the 600,000 people diagnosed with shingles every year suffer the complication of agonizing pain that can last for years. Until now, doctors have had few treatments to control this pain described by some as akin to being jabbed repeatedly with an ice pick.

But there's growing evidence that immediate treatment with new antiviral drugs shortens the duration of shingles and its most painful complication known as post herpetic neuragia. Some of the newest research also suggests what doctors have only hoped for: that the drugs may reduce the risk of post shingles pain.

Herpes Zoster in pregnancy

Newborn babies, whose mothers have the herpes zoster virus even before giving birth may have already been infected at the time of birth through the placenta.

Ultrasound tests made on the developing fetus should focus on the the baby's arms and legs, the head and eyes.

A University of Texas researcher and a team of scientists from the United States and Australia, in a report published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that the drug famciclovir shortened the duration of post-herpetic neuralgia by approximately two months as compared with a group of shingles patients who received a placebo.

Is shingles contagious? Yes, it certainly is. The virus is passed when a person comes in contact with the open sores of the shingles. Once the person has been infected, he or she will develop chickenpox, not shingles.

A shingles patient continues to be a threat to other people's health unless the shingles are completely healed. In this case, physical contact with the afflicted person should be avoided at all costs. People at risk of getting the virus are those who have weak immune system, old people, newborn babies and pregnant women.

© 2011 Zee Mercado

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