1 in 5 shingles patients had pain for more than a month; illness can cost more than $300

SINGAPORE - About one in five patients with shingles, which leads to a skin rash with blisters, experienced pain for more than a month and the total economic burden of the illness could run up to more than $300 per patient.

These were just some findings of a new study based on 347 shingles patients from the National Skin Centre. About one in three adults who get chicken pox are at risk of developing shingles later in their life, said Dr Pan Jiun Yit, consultant dermatologist and lead investigator of the study.

Shingles occurs more frequently in those aged above 50 and is caused by a re-activation of the latent chicken pox virus when one's immunity is weak.

Most shingles patients spend about $125.50 on treatment at general practitioners, according to data from MSD, a pharmaceutical company. About a quarter of these sufferers go to the National Skin Centre for treatment due to complications, persistent symptoms or inconclusive diagnosis, Dr Pan said. Here, they spend about $190 on treatment and consultation. The patient's employer could also incur a cost of more than $100, due to work foregone when the patient is on medical leave.

Patients with shingles usually get one to three days of medical leave. Some might not take it, as shingles is far less infectious than say, chicken pox, Dr Pan said. Shingles usually heals in two weeks. But about one in five experience chronic nerve pain for more than a month; one in 10 for more than three months. The duration of the pain increases with age: more patients aged 80 and above suffer pain for more than six months.

The cost of treating this chronic nerve pain could add another $170 to the bill, NSC data showed.

"It can impair one's quality of life and get in the way of normal day-to-day activities such as walking, sleeping or social activities," said Dr Pan. "The amount spent on treatment can be a burden to elderly patients if they are not employed, not to mention the suffering they have to go through."

A vaccine for shingles called Zostervax costs about $200. Those vaccinated against chicken pox are also at a lower risk of getting shingles. "But the chicken pox vaccine has become popular only in the last 10 to 15 years. So our elderly are still at risk," Dr Pan said.

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