Related to the Chickenpox Virus, People Over Age 60 Most at Risk
While most people are familiar with chickenpox, few have heard another disease caused by the same virus – shingles.
Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash that normally affects older people, but there are steps people can take to lessen their chances of developing it. Common symptoms include pain, sensitivity to touch, a red rash that may lead to fluid-filled blisters that can break open and itching. Some people may also develop a fever or headache.
“Pain is usually the first symptom most people have with shingles,” said Paul Sletten, MD, a family medicine physician with ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca. “The pain and rash usually occur on either the right or left side of the torso. The pain can sometimes be very intense and not everyone develops a rash.”
The best way patients can protect themselves is to get the shingles vaccine, Dr. Sletten said. The Centers for Disease Control recommends everyone over the of age 60 receive it.
“Most people do not realize there is a vaccine they can take to reduce the risk of contracting shingles,” Dr. Sletten said. “It is similar to the vaccine children receive today to prevent contracting chickenpox.”
The vaccine also helps decrease the intensity and duration of the pain if someone contracts shingles despite receiving the immunization.
Shingles and chickenpox are both caused by the varicella-zoster virus. After someone has chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain, Dr. Sletten said. The virus may reactivate as shingles years later with people over the age of 60 most at risk.
“Shingles is not a life-threatening condition, but it is very painful and if not treated, complications may develop,” he said.
Shingles heals on its own in eight to 10 days, but an anti-viral medication can reduce pain, speed the healing process and reduce complications, such as problems with eyesight if the shingles rash is located near the eye and postherpetic neuralgia when patients still have pain after the rash disappears. Over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also help with the pain.
Shingles is also contagious, Dr. Sletten said. If a patient with shingles is around someone who has never had chicken pox or received the chicken pox vaccination, there is a risk of that person developing the chickenpox.
“Pregnant women, newborns and people with compromised immune systems are at most risk of complications if they develop the chickenpox so it is best to stay away from them until any sores are crusted over and you are no longer contagious,” he said.
For more than 100 years, ThedaCare™ has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 6,800 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose as well as 32 clinics in nine counties. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving our specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service.