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Taking a closer look at shingles

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, while shingles occurs in people of all ages, it is most common in 60 to 80 year-olds. Fifty percent of all Americans will have had shingles by the time they are 80. Shingles is caused by a germ called the varicella-zoster virus, the one that gave you chickenpox when you were a child. As you recovered from chickenpox, the sores and other symptoms healed, but the virus remained. You carry it in the nerve cells around your spine for the rest of your life. For people who have had chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. However, if you have never had chickenpox, contact with someone who has shingles could give you chickenpox. The fluid from their open blisters is infectious. The first symptoms usually include burning, itching, or tingling sensations on the back, chest, or around the rib cage or waist. In other cases, it can be the face or eye area that is involved. The affected area can become extremely painful. When the shingles virus reactivates, it travels through nerve fibers, from the spine out to the skin. Inflammation along the nerve path causes the rash, and because the inflammation is in a nerve, it causes pain. The virus seems to need a combination of risk factors in order for a reactivation to be triggered. The usual factors are an aging immune system combined with illness, stress, or even sunburn. Secondary bacterial infections can be a problem, so it is very important to keep the affected area clean. If you suspect you have shingles, see your doctor within 72 hours of the first sign of the rash. Treatment with an antiviral weakens the virus and can reduce the severity of the nerve damage and speed healing although; the disease still tends to run its course. The Senior Connection is a column provided by the Clinton County Office for the Aging. For more information about services for senior citizens, contact their office at 135 Margaret St., Suite 105, Plattsburgh or call them at 565-4620.

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