President's Rx: Shingles

Anyone who has ever suffered a bout of shingles doesn't have to be told what an effect it can have on your life.

I had a spell of it several years back. At first, I thought I had poison ivy, but the area eventually developed blisters, and it clicked - I had shingles. My case cleared up after treatment, but some of the 1 million Americans who get shingles each year aren't as lucky.

Shingles is caused by the same virus that produces childhood chicken pox. This virus lies dormant in the nerve roots of the central nervous system long after the chicken pox resolves. In some people, it actually flares up later to cause shingles.

The symptoms can vary, but the typical sequence is a sensitivity to light, headache, flu-like symptoms and a stinging, burning or pain sensation. The pain usually is localized to one side of the body. Skin becomes exceedingly sensitive in the affected areas, and over time, blister-like spots appear. Over the next few days, the discomfort starts to diminish.

If you recognize the symptoms in the first few days, prescription medications generally can shorten the course and reduce its severity. For most people who get shingles, that's the end of the story. However, as many as 20 percent experience complications that cause pain for several months.

By far the best way to reduce the risk of getting shingles is to get vaccinated. A vaccine for shingles is licensed for people age 60 years or over. For more information about preventing shingles, visit the Centers for Disease Control website. For maintaining good health, I'm Dr. Tedd Mitchell.