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Americans In The Dark About Shingles

Jennifer Wider, M.D. -- Thought you were done with the chickenpox as a kid? Think again. Shingles, a disease caused by the same virus as chickenpox, affects roughly one million Americans each year. As people age, their risk of getting shingles increases but despite its incidence many people are completely unaware of the disease.

"People don't really know about shingles unless they know someone who has had shingles, or they develop it themselves," said Stephen Tyring M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

The results of a recent national survey by the American Pain Foundation support Trying's position. The survey revealed that many older adults were not aware of their risk for the disease. More than half of the respondents who reported having heard of shingles were not sure of the risk factors. And many respondents were unaware of the relationship between chickenpox and shingles.

After a person gets the chickenpox, most often during childhood, the inactivated virus can live on in certain nerve cells in the body. In healthy people, the body's immune system usually keeps the virus at bay. As people age or their immune system becomes compromised, the virus can reactivate and result in shingles.

The risk of shingles increases with age. "With each decade, a person's immunity weakens, so that by 60 years of age, the likelihood of shingles significantly increases," says Tyring. "In fact, one out of two people who live to the age of 85 will have had shingles." And although seniors are at higher risk, shingles can affect people of all ages.

The first signs of shingles may not be visually noticeable. People often experience tingling, burning, itching or pain. During the first few days of symptoms, fluid-filled blisters will break out in a rash, usually on one side of the body or face. The rash is often painful and will heal in two to four weeks, in most people.

However, some people experience post-herpetic neuralgia, or long-term nerve pain which can persist for months or even years after the initial rash. Long-term nerve pain caused by shingles can vary and has been described as burning, throbbing, stabbing, or shooting. The older a person gets, the more he or she is at risk for long-term nerve pain.

Men and women are affected equally by shingles. "I have seen, however, in my practice that women come into the doctor's office sooner, while men tend to wait," Tyring said. Shingles patients, both men and women, are often given analgesics along with antiviral medications for treatment. "Antiviral medicines for shingles may help speed up healing and reduce pain in some patients, but if possible, treatment should begin within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms," according to Tyring.

Although the disease affects the sexes equally, its greater impact on older adults should capture the attention of women.

"Women make up more than 60 percent of population 85 years and older, so any condition that is prone to strike older people is of special concern to women," said Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research. "Older Americans should talk to their health care providers about their risk for shingles."

To raise awareness about shingles and complications that can arise from the disease, the American Pain Foundation is sponsoring a national education program called "Spotlight on Shingles" that features a Web site and a toll-free number that people can call to receive a free informational brochure about shingles. For more information, visit http://www.spotlightonshingles.com.

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the health of all women through research, education and advocacy. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the need for more information about conditions affecting women disproportionately, predominately, or differently than men. For more information, visit: http://www.womenshealthresearch.org.

© 2007 Jennifer Wider, M.D.

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