While shingles is most common in the 60-plus generation, there have been several cases locally that involved much younger populations.
Shingles is caused by by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox may develop shingles even though the virus has remained dormant for years. It is uncertain what triggers the infection, but it could be that immunity levels have declined, which is common for older people. In the same grouping as herpes, zoster are the viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes. Through contact with shingles blisters, someone could acquire chicken pox, which is very dangerous to several groups of people.
Most people are familiar with the symptoms of shingles. Among them are sensitivity to touch and light, pain, burning, numbness and tingling, red rash and fluid filled blisters, itching, fever, headache, and fatigue. Your medical provider should be contacted promptly if you suspect shingles, especially if the pain and rash occur near an eye or you are 70 or older. You are most at risk by being older than 50, have a weakened immunity system, undergoing cancer treatments, and if you are taking certain medicines.
The vaccine that is used to prevent shingles will cut your chances in half of acquiring the condition, and if you do acquire it then the periods of nerve pain are dramatically shorter. Vaccinations are recommended by CDC for everyone over 60, but physicians have prescribed it for younger people. Medicare Part D pays for it as will many insurance companies, although some will not cover people under age 60. Side effects are a redness, swelling and itching on the arm where the vaccination was administered.
There are several populations that should not get vaccinated: pregnant women (also women should refrain from getting pregnant four weeks after vaccination), people allergic to gelatin or any of the other ingredients in the vaccine, people currently receiving cancer treatment or who have had cancer previously in the bone marrow or lymph system, and people with weakened immune systems. Weighing the benefits of prevention, it might be in your best interest to get vaccinated against shingles at the appropriate time. There are several providers in the area (including some of the drug stores) that routinely offer this service.
Bill Smith is the director of the Robeson County Health Department.