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Transcript: "What is Shingles?"

Announcer: Shingles-- it's an age-old skin disease that affects half a million Americans each year and although it can affect all age groups it is especially common among the elderly.

Stephen Straus, M.D.: This is an infection that occurs mostly in older Americans and as our population ages the likelihood that we will get shingles will also increase. By the time people are 80 years old almost half of them will have a bout of shingles.

Erwin Cohen: I must say that I wouldn't wish the instance of shingles on my worst enemy because for the better part of two weeks I was absolutely miserable.

Announcer: Erwin Cohen was in his seventies when he got shingles.

Erwin Cohen: But for the better part of a month and a half thereafter I still had no energy. It was so unlike my normal activity.

Announcer: The shingles virus lies dormant in nerve cells near the spine. When it reactivates it follows a single nerve path to the skin.

Stephen Straus M.D.: It's caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. About four million of us get chicken pox every year and that virus stays in the body for the rest of our lives and later on it reactivates.

Announcer: Shingles usually develops in three stages-- severe pain or tingling, possibly itchy rash and blisters that look like chicken pox but unlike chicken pox shingles only affects one side of the body.

Adriana Marques, M.D.: The location of the rash is a clue if the rash is shingles or not. The shingles rash occurs in one side of the body usually like a belt or a band or it can occur on one side of the face. It usually starts as a patch of dots, red dots, that then will become blisters.

Announcer: Erwin Cohen's case of shingles followed this pattern.

Erwin Cohen: Not recognizing what my problem was I had what I thought was a mild virus and then a temperature developed. I think I got up to about 102 and then I went to my doctor. When he examined me there was a small rash on the back of my neck and the top of my left shoulder and he immediately diagnosed it as shingles.

Announcer: Erwin Cohen's bout with shingles lasted about four months and he recovered completely but sometimes there are complications.

Stephen Straus, M.D.: About 15 percent of people who get shingles get it on the forehead and when it involves the forehead it can spread to the eye and cause injury to the cornea and blindness. There are all sorts of other neurologic complications with paralysis as well.

Announcer: While most people who get shingles do not have complications almost everyone with shingles experiences pain.

Stephen Straus, M.D.: Most individuals over age 60 get pain. Fortunately it goes away in a month in most of them but there is a subset of people who are bedeviled by pain for many months or even years.

Announcer: To treat shingles doctors use antiviral and pain medications. The anti virals are not a cure but they weaken the virus and can reduce the pain and speed the healing.

Adriana Marques, M.D.: They definitely should go early because the antiviral medications will work faster if they are started early. The best is if they started within 72 hours from the appearance of the rash.

Announcer: The upside to shingles is that if you are basically healthy it usually resolves without complications. You are not likely to ever get it again and life did get back to normal for Erwin Cohen.

Erwin Cohen: I was working at the time for First National Bank of Maryland. I wrote them a letter resigning on the theory that I just didn't have what it takes to operate on a day-to-day basis. They insisted that I continue later on when I felt like it and about 2 1/2 months later I went back to work.

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