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Shingles: an unwelcome encore

When Shakira Roberts went to her doctor with ‘insect bites’, to her surprise he diagnosed shingles, a condition she’d never heard of before.

‘He explained it had to do with the chicken pox virus I had as a child, and told me the virus never leaves your body. Under extremely stressful times or when your immune system gets really low, the virus can be reactivated.’

What is shingles?

This very painful rash or fluid-filled blisters may at first appear like insect bites, mostly around the torso, palms, inner arms, legs or feet. The blisters heal over a few weeks, but the virus can cause long-lasting and shooting pain along the nerve pathways. This pain is known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Some patients also report having a fever, headache or fatigue.

Who is at risk?

Shingles is most common in people over 50, but can occur in younger people too. People with low immunity, cancer or HIV are at more risk. Triggers can include shock, stress or lowered immune function.

For 36-year-old Shakira Roberts, the symptoms included a few spots on her inner arm. ‘I thought they were mosquito bites,’ she says. After a few days the ‘bites’ started becoming painful and inflamed, so she tried antihistamines and ointments but nothing helped. ‘The pain started to shoot up from my arm into my shoulders.’

Complications

If shingles occurs in the facial area the virus can cause temporary paralysis, and if the eyes are affected it can affect the cornea and cause permanent damage.

Is shingles contagious?

Yes. Until the blisters have ‘crusted’, it is contagious to people who’ve never had chickenpox or haven’t been vaccinated against it (such as newborns).

Treatment options

Doctors may prescribe antivirals, topical creams and pain medication. Shakira says the pain only started easing about a week after she started taking the antivirals. One should avoid scratching the blisters to prevent scarring. Moist compresses and cool baths can ease the discomfort.

Prevention is better than cure

There’s no cure for shingles, but one can keep the immune system healthy to prevent it recurring. The poor lifestyle choices that often accompany stress can cause a major depression of one’s immunity.

Experts recommend taking these measures:

  • If you’re generally feeling run down, it could be the first sign that your immune system is suffering so scale down responsibilities.
  • Cut down on sugar – it compromises your immune system.
  • Alcohol, caffeine and all additives and preservatives place stress on your immune system.
  • Eat more quality protein (lean and organic) and superfoods – the brighter, the better (berries, pumpkin and broccoli, to name a few).
  • Take a daily multivitamin if you are unable to eat between 5 and 10 portions of fruit and vegetables daily.
  • Get enough sleep.

‘In hindsight, I was severely stressed at work,’ says Shakira. ‘My immune system was also very low, and I had been catching all sorts of colds and flu before the shingles. This has made me sit up and take note of what messages my body is sending me. Before the shingles I had ignored the signs that I was run down, tired, overworked and not eating properly. I’m exercising more regularly now and am taking better care with my nutrition.’

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.