We have all heard the advertisements — “If you had the chickenpox, you also have the shingles virus” — and then the subsequent advice to get a vaccine.
Most of us have had the chickenpox. Unfortunately, the vaccine against shingles works just 70 percent of the time, according to Dr. Chris LeSueur speaking at the Sept. 11 Lunch & Learn program at the Payson Regional Medical Center’s Senior Circle.
Senior Circle Advisor Jan Parsons said LeSueur drew the biggest crowd ever to attend a Lunch & Learn. So, yes, we have all heard those advertisements.
Many have also heard about the weeks and months of pain that goes with a shingles outbreak. Sometimes, the pain persist indefinitely. LeSueur said he has a 104-year-old patient who has been on narcotics for 20 years to muffle the pain of shingles.
The chickenpox virus, which is a type of herpes virus, hides out in the nervous system for years. But if something causes the immune system to weaken, like illness, cancer or simple aging, the virus can flare.
Initial symptoms include a tingling and burning sensation — most often at the waist. Within days, blisters appear at the nerve endings. Although they usually dry up in four to five days, the pain can continue.
Victims must not touch the fluid in the blisters or they risk spreading the virus. Touch it and rub your eye and you can develop a blinding infection. Touch the ear and the infection can cause a loss of hearing.
Touch a child after touching the blister fluid and you can give that child chickenpox if they’ve never been infected or vaccinated.
LeSueur said keep the skin clean with a damp washcloth and then let the area air-dry. Shingles don’t spread through coughing, just contact with the fluid in the blisters.
Sometimes, shingles don’t actually cause blisters but can cause a high fever.
If diagnosed within 72 hours of the blisters presenting, antibiotics can minimize the effects, LeSueur said.
Most people will need pain medication.
Shingles are most common in those older than 60. By the age of 85, 50 percent of people will develop shingles, the doctor said. The vaccine is 70 percent effective for those who are 60, with the impact becoming less pronounced as people age. Even with the vaccine, a person can still get a less severe case of shingles, he said.
The virus can develop anywhere, he said, although the blisters at the waist are the most common.
LeSueur said about 25 percent of the victims develop lasting complications.
He said that people who don’t know if they’ve had the chickenpox can take a $150 blood test to tell for sure.