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 Annual 2010

Annual 2010


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When Chickenpox for Grownups Strikes

     On a Friday in early September, Donna Turner, 52, of Oakland awoke to the worst headache of her life.
     “I initially thought it was a sinus headache,” Turner says. “Later that evening, I felt as if someone had stabbed me behind my left eye with an ice pick. The pain was wickedly sharp, like nothing I’d ever experienced, and I went to bed that night in tears.”
     When the pain continued the next day, Turner immediately went to the emergency room where doctors treated her for a severe migraine and sent her home with medications that did little to relieve her discomfort.
     “I was frightened because instead of feeling better, I began feeling much worse,” Turner says. “By the third day, my eye was swollen, and blistery bumps were forming on my forehead.”
     On Tuesday, five days after her bizarre symptoms had appeared, Turner’s doctor diagnosed her with shingles, an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, after an attack of chickenpox, the virus lays dormant in nerve tissue. As people age, the virus can reappear in the form of shingles.
     Nearly 1 million Americans receive medical care for shingles and its complications each year. Although anyone who has recovered from chickenpox can develop shingles, it most commonly occurs in people over the age of 50.
     “While there is no concrete way to prevent shingles, people with a weakened immune system can be at greater risk of contracting the condition,” says Dr. Roger Baxter, an infectious disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center (who did not treat Turner), and co-director of Kaiser’s Vaccine Study Center. “Risk also increases with age. One study estimates that people who reach the age of 85 have a 50 percent chance of getting shingles.”
     Another study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed the traditional Chinese exercise tai chi has been shown to increase immunity to the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles. Another study reported in the May 2008 issue of the Archives of Dermatology suggests that family history may also be a risk factor in contracting shingles.
     “The good news is that most people who have shingles typically only have one episode of the disease in their lifetime,” Baxter says. “Shingles affects an estimated 2 in every 10 people and can cause burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching.”
     While there is no cure for shingles, antiviral drugs can reduce the duration and severity of shingles.
     “My doctor prescribed rest, Prednisone and Valtrex and Lyrica, a medication that takes the edge off the neurological pain and helped me to sleep at night,” Turner says. “I also experienced double vision, a common symptom of shingles.”
     Although shingles most commonly occurs in people ages 50 and older, doctors recommend that patients age 60 and older get a single dose of the shingles vaccine (called Zostavax). While the vaccine cannot treat shingles once it develops, it can prevent consumers from contracting shingles, and is recommended even for those who have had shingles to prevent a further occurrence.
     “The safety and the effects of the vaccine have only been studied in patients ages 60 and older at this time,” Baxter says. “We are currently conducting a research study on patients ages 50 to 59. Future research will determine if the recommended age for vaccination should be lowered.”

Help for Shingles Patients

Local Resources

     Safeway stores offer the Zostavax vaccine to adults over the age of 60. For a listing of locations, prices and dates/times that immunizations are offered, visit safeway.com.

     Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy offers a list of vitamins and nutritional supplements that can help with the
pain and other side effects of shingles. Visit pharmaca.com or the store at 5729 College Ave., Oakland.

     Alameda Hospital at 2070 Clinton Ave., Alameda, offers tai chi classes; tai chi has been shown to increase immunity against shingles. Classes are $40 for eight weeks. For information, call (510) 814-4362 or visit alamedahospital.org.

NATIONAL Resources

     The pharmaceutical company Merck hosts a Web site, shinglesinfo.com, listing questions to ask your doctor, a fact sheet and other related information.

     The National Institutes of Health offer information about the shingles virus and vaccine at nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/shingles.html.

     The National Network for Immunization Information offers background information on the Zostavax vaccine, including side effects, and certain medical conditions that may interact with the vaccine, at immunizationinfo.org


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