Monday Medical: Learn more about shingles

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I was five when I had chickenpox, and I still remember it: the calamine lotion, the oatmeal baths, the itching! It’s rarer these days to see chickenpox because most children are vaccinated against this disease.

For those of us who had the chickenpox, however, there is a disease we should know about: shingles.

Anyone who has had chickenpox could get shingles. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three people in the U.S. will develop shingles in his or her lifetime. That is about 1 million people each year.

Shingles is a disease caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus. Researchers think that during the initial illness with chickenpox some of the virus moves into the nerves where it can stay for many years without causing any symptoms. Then at a later date, it will reactivate and travel down the nerves to the skin where it causes shingles.

The virus re-emerges usually when the immune system is down because of age, illness, stress or low immune status caused by conditions such as HIV or cancer treatment.

Shingles looks similar to chickenpox: a rash of fluid-filled blisters. Because the virus travels through the nerves, the rash tends to concentrate in a particular area and side of the body.

Some people notice an unusual feeling such as a burning, tingling or itching in the skin before the rash starts. The rash can be very itchy or painful.

It is advisable to visit a doctor or health care professional soon after the rash starts because treatment is best if started at the latest within two to three days. Your provider will treat you based on your symptoms.

The treatment will be for about one week, though it might take two to four weeks for the rash to completely resolve. The pain might last for a few weeks, as well.

Evaluation and treatment also might help prevent a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia that can develop after shingles and cause prolonged pain.

Shingles is contagious, and the virus can be passed to someone who is not immune. For example, most children are not fully vaccinated against chickenpox until they are 4 to 6 years old. Younger children could catch the virus from someone who has shingles.

The good news is that there is a vaccine to help prevent shingles called Zostavax, which has been used since 2006 and is FDA approved for people 50 and older.

Per the CDC, clinical trials showed that the vaccine decreased the chance of getting shingles by 50 percent. It also is thought to reduce pain if someone does get shingles after receiving the vaccine.

Whether you have had shingles, you can get vaccinated. The CDC recommends this one-time vaccine for anyone older than 60.

Zostavax is available at numerous locations, including primary care physician practices in Steamboat Springs, the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and pharmacies.

It costs about $200 without insurance coverage. For those older than 65, Medicare D will cover at least part of the vaccine. Those younger than 65 should call their insurance company to see whether it covers the vaccination. If insurance will cover the vaccine, it is best to have a prescription from your health care provider.

Michelle Jimerson is a family physician with Yampa Valley Medical Associates and can be reached at 970-879-3327.

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