5 things to know about shingles

Blisters on the skin of a shingles patient.
Blisters on the skin of a shingles patient. PHOTO: NATIONAL SKIN CENTRE

A study released today by Raffles Hospital found that a person with shingles pays an average of $279 for his medicine and doctor's consultation fees, but this rises to $3,007 if he is hospitalised for about three days.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus- which also causes chicken pox.

This is the first such study to report on the economic burden of shingles at a private hospital. It involved 51 patients aged 50 and above who were treated at Raffles Hospital from January 2010 to March 2013.

Dr Ho Kok Yuen, clinical director of the pain management service at Raffles Hospital and the lead investigator of the study, shares five things you should know about shingles.

1. RASH ON ONE SIDE OF BODY

Shingles usually causes pain in a particular body part, followed by a rash. This pain and rash is confined to one side of the body, commonly on the chest or abdomen, though it can also affect the face or limbs. This is unlike the rash in chicken pox, which covers the entire body.

The rash initially appears as red spots before becoming blisters, which dry up in a week or two to form scabs.

2. IT'S CONTAGIOUS

Others can contract the disease through direct contact with fluid from the blisters of shingles patients. So, people afflicted with shingles should avoid sharing towels or taking part in activities that involve close physical contact with others. Shingles become non-infectious when the blisters dry up to form scabs.

If the person has not had chicken pox before, he will get chicken pox instead of shingles.

3. PAINKILLERS USUALLY NEEDED

The condition is painful, so much so that painkillers are almost always required.

In addition, antiviral therapy is given orally within 48 hours of the onset of a rash to reduce its severity and lower the risk of complications.

4. IT CAN CAUSE NERVE DAMAGE

For some people, shingles can cause long-term nerve pain, called postherpetic neuralgia, which is pain persisting longer than 90 days after the onset of rash.

This is because the virus can damage the nerve fibres. For such patients, even the touch of soft clothing or a light breeze against the skin can be painful.

5. AGE IS A RISK FACTOR

The immune system can get weaker with age, causing the varicella zoster virus to be reactivated in the body, triggering shingles.

Older age is also associated with greater rash severity, an increased incidence of early onset pain and increased duration of pain associated with the shingles rash.

Therefore, the shingles vaccination is recommended for people above 50.