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Easing the Sting of Shingles

The name conjures up bizarre images of thin rectangular panels of asphalt, wood or slate hanging from your skin, looking as unsightly as they are painful. The truth, however, is that shingles in terms of a skin condition look nothing like a patch of the roof atop your house, but they are indeed unsightly and quite painful, even to the touch.

As described on mayoclinic.org, shingles is a viral infection accompanied by a distressing rash in the form of a strip of blisters that can pop up anywhere on your body, but most often on the left or right side of the torso. It can also show up around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.

Even before the rash appears, wherever it rears its ugly self, early symptoms can include headache, sensitivity to light or the feeling of the flu but without the fever. Later, you might feel itching, tingling or pain in a certain area, says webmd.com, to be followed several days later by the rash and then clusters of blisters. Regardless the stage of shingles you're in, not much fun.

Even worse, after you get it once and you work your way through the treatments and the recovery period, all of which can take several weeks, there is a chance you can get it again later in life. Such is one of the characteristics of this strange affliction, which has its roots in the chickenpox virus that many of us either experienced as kids or were vaccinated for.

Essentially, shingles – and the noun is singular, for your grammarians – is what happens when the chickenpox virus, which has been dormant in your body for decades, is reawakened by an attack of the immune system by something like disease, stress or aging. Age is a definitive factor in determining who gets shingles and why, with most cases appearing in people 50 and over. Various estimates say one in two to one in three adults will get shingles by the time they are 80.

Most of the people who do get shingles, claims emedicinehealth.com, are 60 and over, with infrequent occurrence in younger people and children. "Investigators estimate that about 1 million cases of shingles occur per year in the U.S.," the website adds.

The good news is that shingles don't get transmitted from one person to another, as with a contagion. However, webmd.com reports, there is a slight chance that someone at the rash/blisters stage could spread the virus to another person who's never had chickenpox or received the vaccine. Grownups who never got the vaccine as a youngster need not despair: there is a shingles vaccine for adults, which, although it won't guarantee a totally shingles-free existence, will reduce his or her odds of ever getting the shingles, prevent long-term pain that might occur after the shingles are gone and make it more likely that if you do get the shingles, you won't have as much pain, and the rash probably will clear up quicker than it would without the vaccine.

How effective is the vaccine? A 2011 USA Today article cited a Kaiser Permanente study of 300,000 patients, which showed that the vaccine reduced the risk of developing shingles by 55 percent. It was also pointed out that shingles can lead to post-herpetic neuralgia, which can be especially painful. The residual nerve pain, The Wall Street Journal reported, can last for months.

"This virus can make people not want to be hugged or lie on the sheet even. It can be excruciating," says Juanita Watts, a San Diego area family-care physician for Kaiser Permanente, quoted by USA Today.

This is not to say if you get shingles, you are doomed to weeks or months of torture. Getting immediately examined by a physician when you first suspect that you might have symptoms is crucial. There are medicines to treat shingles, to include antiviral medications as well as those for pain. The earlier you can get started with the antiviral medicines, the better your chances of getting the rash healed faster while diminishing the pain.