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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 / 9:01 AM

Shingles: Warning Signs, Treatment, and What You Can Learn from Tony La Russa

When Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa was diagnosed with shingles, weeks after initially contracting the viral condition, medical professionals locally could be sure of a couple things. The positive aspect is that many people have become aware of the skin affliction for the first time. The negative is that more than a few self-diagnoses will be given, erroneously, since shingles can mimic some characteristics of other skin issues.

Dr. Sanaa Waheed, who practices internal medicine with Mercy Clinic, says that shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is both an oft-seen affliction, especially for those over 50, as well as something that brings people into the doctor with mistaken guesswork. About a third of American adults will eventually contract shingles, even if it’s only a glancing blow, with roughly a million cases diagnosed annually.

“Typically, shingles is found on only one part of the body,” Waheed says, “though it can occasionally be seen on both sides, if recurring over a long period of time. Oftentimes, shingles develops on the trunk of the body, or on the legs, or arms.”

She adds that La Russa’s case is among the most serious variants, as it has spread across his face to the skin near his eyes, which along with the ears, are the most worrisome areas to treat. The rash, in those places, can begin to mutate into other, more serious viral attacks on the sufferers’ vision and hearing. Even when shingles doesn’t move across a person’s face, the typical outbreak will cause no shortage of uncomfortable scratching and itching before the rash breaks into a crusted, scab-like state that eventually passes.

Waheed seconds this general rule of thumb: A worn-down body and constitution can trigger shingles “after a long period of dormancy.” Rooted deep in a person’s nervous system from the leftover viral traces of chickenpox, shingles can be given a kick-start by “a suppression of the immune system, or a period of great stress,” Waheed adds.

As for whether shingles is contagious, she says that it’s a “yes and no” answer. Someone in the worst phase of the sickness (as the blisters crack) can pass along a case to a person who’s never had chickenpox. But that combination of factors is a relatively rare one. Mostly, then, dealing with shingles falls solely on the person suffering with it.

Early detection, with medication prescribed and taken within the first three days, is the most effective way to dampen the negative effects of shingles. Those with concerns about contracting shingles can also find various outlets that offer proactive vaccinations, including some public health facilities, as well as drug stores like select Walgreen’s locations.

With La Russa’s condition still in the news this week, there’s a good chance that those folks suffering from newfound red bumps and blisters might feel as if shingles has visited them. Getting in to the doctor to make sure is key, even as Waheed notes, “We get a lot of people coming in, thinking that they have shingles. It’s a fairly common worry.”

But, luckily, patients can be diagnosed quickly with certainty. In this way, LaRussa’s long period of fighting through the virus without proper detection might offer the best lesson: Get checked, earlier rather than later.
 

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