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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

A word of warning: Don't put off seeing the doctor

Tell a friend you have shingles and chances are they will say, "You poor thing. I'm sorry. What are they anyway?"

Or they may try their hand at humor and ask what you are building, or toss in another quip that connects the name "shingles" to rooftops and carpentry.

To the person suffering with shingles, such remarks are not funny and do not deserve response. They hurt. A lot.

I know all about shingles. Or at least I know more than the average person.

Shingles are sneaky and can be building up undetected under the skin until you feel a big pain blast. As much of a shingles veteran as I am, once again I was caught unaware, as I was two previous times. That's the reason I want to relate my experience, so that other people will pay attention to the warnings and get help. Time is of the essence. Believe me, I will be paying attention if there is a next time, though I am told having shingles three times is somewhat of a record that few people achieve, and it should be the end.

Just what did I do to deserve such attention? Was it stress that caused the virus to attack when my immune system was down? While it is the general belief that extreme stress activates shingles, a leading Toledo physician is not totally sold on the theory.

Larry Johnson, chairman of the family medicine department at the Medical University of Ohio, says whoever has the answer to what triggers shingles should win a Nobel prize. But, he adds, for some people stress definitely can be the precipitator.

According to Dr. Johnson, up to 20 percent of the people who have chicken pox as children will have shingles as adults, usually after they are 50 years old. He explains that one reason for immunizing children against chicken pox is as a preventative from having shingles in later life. A vaccine is being developed to decrease the incidence of shingles in adults.

So what are shingles? The chicken pox virus stays dormant in the nerve roots along the spine. The virus is activated by a weakened immune system. The first sign of shingles is pain, usually on the body, but sometimes also on the face. After a skin rash in the area of the body where the pain is felt, extremely painful blisters form and follow a major nerve in the body. The duration can be short or long, depending on the severity and how quickly medical attention is sought.

Dr. Johnson encourages people to notify a physician in the early phases to hopefully get access to advancements in shingles relief that are now available. In rare cases people suffering with persistent chronic pain are referred to a pain clinic.

Old Mr. Shingles fooled me royally this time. A week after I fell hard on my right hip on some concrete, that hip began to hurt. It became increasingly painful to the degree that sleep was impossible and clothing hurt. I was so certain it was an injury from the fall I had my hip X-rayed. When the pain worsened and there was noticeable swelling, I slathered a deep penetrating cream over it. The next day checking in a mirror showed a line of red blotches. I realized the blotches were not from the cream. I called my doctor, and said, "Guess what, I believe I have shingles again." He agreed.

So why the name shingles? Dr. Johnson says he believes the name came from a physician who was also a carpenter and who took note of how the blisters overlap like shingles. That was about 400 years ago, he said.



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