Shingles strikes young and old alike
By Lara Krupicka For Sun-Times Media January 14, 2013 2:50PM
Michele Smith, of Bolingbrook, and her daughter, Hannah, 13, who developed shingles after a visit to Kenya where she worked with children in an orphanage. | Submitted
Doctors urge those who develop the rash to see a doctor within 72 hours of onset:
Starts as a painful rash on one side of the face or body.
Rash forms blisters that typically scab over in seven to 10 days.
Rash clears up within two to four weeks.
Most commonly occurs in a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body.
Other symptoms can include:
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov
Updated: January 15, 2013 12:58PM
According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost one in every three people will experience shingles in their lifetime. And because about half of all cases occur in people older than 60, it is frequently thought of as an older person’s illness. But younger people often get it, too. Just ask Hannah Smith.
The Bolingbrook middle-schooler developed shingles after a visit to Kenya where she worked with children in an orphanage. The orphanage had suffered an outbreak of chickenpox before Smith’s family arrived, but Hannah’s mother, Michele, thought nothing of it.
“All of my kids already had chickenpox,” she says.
Given their immunity to the disease, she had no problem with her children playing with the young orphans. And Hannah particularly enjoyed holding one 2-year-old boy who’d most recently had chickenpox.
Then on the plane ride home, Hannah complained of pain under her arm. When Michele looked at the area, she noticed a red patch of small bumps. During the next few days, the bumps grew and became pus-filled. That’s when Michele became suspicious and took her daughter to the doctor for a diagnosis. His conclusion: shingles.
Shingles, or herpes zoster, results from the same virus that causes chickenpox. It only occurs in people who previously contracted chickenpox (even those whose exposure didn’t result in the chickenpox rash). This is because the virus can remain in the body in a dormant state until a new exposure to chickenpox, or extreme conditions of stress or heat, or other unknown reasons, cause the virus to become active again.
Dr. Elizabeth Pector, a family practice physician with Edward Medical Group, points out a major difference between shingles and chickenpox.
“Chickenpox is spread by coughing,” she says. “But in shingles, if the rash is covered, people can’t get it from you.”
And in theory, one person can’t contract shingles from another — an exposure to shingles can only cause chickenpox in those who haven’t had the disease or gotten a vaccine. Plus once you’ve had shingles, you typically won’t have another episode of the rash. Rarely do people develop shingles more than once in their lifetime.
How can you tell if you have shingles?
“It can start as pain,” Pector explains. “Sharp shooting pain. Then two to three days later, a rash breaks out. It looks like chickenpox on one side of the body. Then it turns blistery.”
Typical outbreaks occur in strips across the chest and abdomen and along arms and legs. In a small percentage of cases, the virus will affect the eyes, necessitating immediate treatment to prevent long-term damage to eyesight.
Pector emphasizes the importance of seeking treatment immediately no matter where the rash appears or how sharp the pain.
“Get into the doctor or urgent care within 72 hours of the rash. They can start you on an antiviral medication to shorten the course and prevent chronic nerve pain,” Pector says.
And she knows the urgency of this. Pector contracted shingles last summer and dealt with nerve pain from the virus for several months after the rash.
Postherpetic neuralgia or PHN involves random skin sensitivity and shooting pain in places where the shingles rash occurred. It can last for weeks or months and can sometimes be debilitating.
While Hannah’s case was mild, with slight itching and pain that responded to Advil and Neosporin, doctors can prescribe stronger pain relievers, such as Vicodin, for more severe cases.
And for those older than 60 (and sometimes as young as 50), a vaccine is available.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” says Michele of her daughter’s bout with shingles. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
That might have been because of her age or her high tolerance for pain. The rest of us would do well do use caution and not think we’re immune to getting shingles, no matter what our age.