February 5, 2013 | Back to: Columns

Shingles: Much more common than you think

A year ago, Grass Valley resident Muffin Latham began to feel a burning sensation on her face.

At first she attributed it to recent dental work, but the sensation didn’t go away — in fact, it was getting worse.

“The pain was up around my eye, then traveled up to my eyebrow,” she said. “I started to feel like I was burning alive. It was intolerable.”

A dentist took one look at Latham — who had developed a severe rash — and sent her to the hospital. Diagnosis? Shingles. Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is a virus that causes a blistering skin rash — the same virus that causes chickenpox.

According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 25 percent of adults will get shingles at least once in their lifetime, most commonly after the age of 50. The chance of getting shingles increases with age, states the NIH, hence, “shingles is 10 times more likely to occur in adults over 60 than in children under 10.”

Unfortunately, the severity of pain related to shingles is likely to increase as people age.

“Forty percent of people over 60 who get shingles will experience lasting pain — also known as postherpetic neuralgia — even after the rash is gone,” said Yubadocs medical director and physician Roger Hicks. “We usually see several cases of shingles a month in a wide range of ages and severity, although it is more severe in older patients.”

Echoing Hicks’ findings, the U.S. National Library of Medicine states that shingles may develop in any age group, but individuals are more likely to contract the virus if “you are older than 60, you had chickenpox before age 1 or your immune system is weakened by medications or disease.”

The chickenpox virus can remain dormant in specific nerves in the body, and shingles occurs when the virus — often decades later — becomes active again.

Those with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk of developing shingles, as well as those who have been under stress for a long period of time. Hicks calls this physical or psychological stress a “window of opportunity” for the virus to rear its ugly head.

“I was seriously injured in a car accident on Highway 174,” said Latham, now 76. “I believe the stress from that incident triggered the shingles. Now I’m seeing ads about it on TV, but at the time, I’d never heard of it.”

Currently there is no cure for shingles, but NIH data suggest that outbreaks can be shorter and less painful with the use of prescription antiviral and anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as stress-reduction exercises and a healthy diet.

Probably the best news is that a shingles vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006. In “The Shingles Prevention Study,” involving 38,000 veterans ages 60 or older, the vaccine was found to be safe and reduce shingles cases by 51 percent. In addition, “pain and discomfort were reduced by 61 percent in people who received the active vaccine but still got shingles,” and the number of long-term pain cases reduced by two-thirds.

Hicks, as well as Dr. Frank Lang Jr., chief medical officer at Miners Family Health Center, both recommend the vaccine — Hicks says for those over the age of 60, while Lang says 50. The hitch? It can be expensive, and not all insurance companies will cover the cost.

No matter what the cost, Latham wishes she’d known about the vaccine before her life was overshadowed by the ongoing pain of shingles, which she said has caused facial scarring and damage to her cornea.

“Don’t let the cost bother you,” she said. “Believe me when I say it’s worth it. I’ve lost part of my life because of shingles. I still wake up in the night with a burning sensation. ‘Ongoing hell’ is what I would have named this virus.”

To contact staff writer Cory Fisher, email cfisher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.

“Forty percent of people over 60 who get shingles will experience lasting pain.”

— Roger Hicks,
Yubadocs medical director

Cory Fisher
cfisher@theunion.com

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The Union Updated Jul 19, 2013 02:36PM Published Feb 5, 2013 10:24PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.