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Shingles, the disease that is often forgotten

Shingles, the disease that is often forgotten

God bless you. Infection scientist Stephan Winkler often deals with shingles patients in his daily work. Although the disease can have serious consequences, it is more and more forgotten by the population, according to the expert.

Shingles (herpes zoster) is an infectious disease based on reactivation of the chickenpox virus (varicella). After chickenpox — which many people have in childhood — the virus remains in the nerve ganglia of the spinal cord for life.

Under certain conditions, the virus can reactivate after years or decades. It then reaches the skin via the nerve pathways. The resulting unilateral rash with blisters and scabs is known to be shingles. Stefan Winkler, professor and infectious disease scientist at the Medical University of Vienna, answers frequently asked questions about the disease in an interview.

Shingles is often seen by the general public, but also by doctors, as a harmless or harmless disease – does this perception correspond to reality? Are there any cases that you particularly remember?

The importance of shingles is still often underestimated. But for us doctors, this is an infectious disease that should not be underestimated and that affects so many people. Basically all parts of the body can be affected. Depending on where shingles occurs, long-term sequelae can occur. The occurrence in the facial area is particularly uncomfortable and dangerous. An eye infection can lead to iritis, cataracts, or glaucoma. Even blindness cannot be ruled out. Shingles on the ear is also very troublesome for sufferers, as it is often accompanied by hearing loss or a disturbance in the sense of balance.

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Under certain conditions, shingles can also spread to the entire skin and internal organs. In people with weakened immune systems, shingles can, in the worst case, end with pneumonia or inflammation of the brain tissue, which is called encephalitis.

Although severe forms of the disease are relatively rare, shingles should be treated seriously. After an illness, for example, half of people over 70 years of age experience persistent pain in the affected area. Early treatment is recommended to prevent permanent nerve pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia.

Shingles: If an infection occurs, the skin becomes red, usually followed by blistering and burning pain.(c) shutterstock

How many people have this disease in Austria?

Unfortunately there are no exact dates for Austria. However, if you break down the numbers from Germany, it can be assumed that about 40,000 people have been affected. There are also studies that have shown that up to the age of 80 a person gets shingles at least once every second.

What increases the risk of disease?

The risk of shingles increases with age because the immune system weakens over time. Even people with chronic diseases who take a lot of medication usually have a weakened immune system and are therefore more susceptible to being affected. The same applies to cancer patients. Stress can also reactivate the virus and develop shingles.

How can you protect yourself?

If you want to prevent the disease, you have the option of being vaccinated against shingles.

What are the vaccination recommendations in the Austrian vaccination plan?

Vaccination is recommended – as per the vaccination plan – for all people over the age of 50. Shingles vaccination is also recommended for people under the age of 50 if they belong to an at-risk group. These include people with serious underlying disease and/or a weakened immune system (immunosuppression).