Have you heard about shingles? Many people believe that the cause of this disease is ‘supernatural’ and that it is a curse. But in fact, its cause is medically proven to be a virus! Myths about a disease originate because people don’t know enough about it and are ready to believe what the next person says or what they read on the internet. There are several myths associated with the viral disease shingles, which is called Herpes zoster or locally by the name ‘Nagin’ by many people because of how it looks and the stinging pain it causes. So, let us bust some of the myths related to shingles.
Fact: Shingles is not a curse, but a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus. This virus is also responsible for causing chickenpox. In anyone who has had chickenpox, the virus can lie dormant in the nerve roots. Later in life, if at any time this individual’s immunity weakens, the virus reactivates and causes shingles. The first symptom is a painful rash, followed by nerve pain. But for many patients, pain may appear even before appearance of rash. This is called prodromal pain. This pain can last for months or even years after the rash clears up. This complication is known as post-herpetic neuralgia.
Fact: Shingles is not just a regular skin condition. It is a viral disease that affects the nerves of the body. Though the rash is a common symptom of shingles, nerve pain is the most distressing. The pain is almost unbearable. It is described as ‘stinging’ and ‘burning’ and has been described by patients to be more severe than even labour pain.
Most of the time, medicine may not provide complete relief for this pain. Global statistics show that patients take up to 5 different medicines for this pain and still continue to suffer because it is a nerve pain. But the statistics also show that vaccination can prevent this pain and provide added benefits of minimising complications.
If the virus affects the nerves of the eye, it can cause blindness. If it affects the upper eyelid, it can cause persistent watering of the eyes. If the nerves of the face are affected and the shingles rash develops on the forehead, it can leave behind unsightly pigmentation. For elderly patients, shingles can be very debilitating. It can affect their appetite and sleep. It can even cause life-threatening complications such as pneumonia. Vaccination provides protection against these complications by preventing herpes zoster.
Fact: Global studies show that one out of every 3 people is at risk of shingles and the risk is highest for the elderly. The truth is that almost all of us have been exposed to the varicella zoster virus in India. Most of us have either been exposed to or suffered from chickenpox, even if clear symptoms did not appear. Studies show that 90 percent of adults above the age of 50 years carry the chickenpox virus within them.
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So, anyone above the age of 50 years can potentially get shingles anytime when their immunity weakens. This is why the elderly are at the highest risk because they are in varying stages of the phenomenon known as ‘immunosenescence’. This means the immunity of the body starts to age from within and its function begins to decline. However, vaccination can boost your immunity against shingles.
Fact: You can get shingles again even if you have got it once. Although this is a rare occurrence, it can certainly happen. One episode of shingles may not provide life-long immunity. But vaccination can protect you from a second episode of shingles. Once vaccinated, even if you do get shingles, it will usually be a milder attack. The protection of vaccination is particularly important for everyone above the age of 50 years, including those who have suffered from shingles before.
Fact: The rash does not usually cross the mid-line of the body. In some people with very low immunity, this can happen, but it does not lead to death! The shingles rash appears only on one side of the body because the virus resides in the nerve roots and spreads along specific nerves only on one side of the body. When a person’s immunity is very low, the virus can spread over a larger area of nerves and cause a rash on both sides of the body.