California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has had a more torturous battle with shingles than previously revealed, her office said Thursday, as it revealed the condition led to complications that partially paralyzed her face and caused swelling on her brain.
Feinstein, 89, said in a statement last week that she suffered complications from the condition, which occurs when the varicella-zoster virus — responsible for chickenpox — reactivates later in life.
The veteran Democratic representative developed encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, which “resolved shortly after she was discharged from the hospital in March,” a spokesman for the senator said Associated Press.
And she continues to battle Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a rare neurological disorder seen in some people who have or have recently had shingles. The syndrome occurs when reactivated varicella-zoster virus spreads to the facial nerve, according to the National Organization for Rare Diseases. While the shingles-like syndrome is usually only seen in the elderly, pop star Justin Bieber, 29, announced last year that he suffers from the condition. Since then, his condition has improved.
When Feinstein returned to the Senate on May 10 after more than two months away, her face appeared partially paralyzed, leading to speculation that she had suffered a stroke. She is still recovering from Ramsey Hunt syndrome and will operate on a reduced schedule, aides told the AP last week.
The senator’s illness has put shingles back in the spotlight — and attention to the issue is much needed, experts say. A staggering 99% of people born before 1980 have experienced chicken pox — and anyone who has is at risk of developing shingles later in life.
Here are seven things you need to know about the extremely painful condition known for striking without much warning — even among those who think they’ve never had chicken pox.
Shingles occurs when your immune system weakens, usually with age.
Once someone is infected with the varicella-zoster virus, a non-sexually transmitted type of herpes virus, it retreats into the nervous system where it remains permanently. It can be reactivated when the immune system weakens — often due to aging and usually after age 50, Dr. Sajida Chaudhry, a primary care physician and medical director of the office at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians in Odenton, said recently. Of fate Alex Vance.
But it can appear at any age, at any time, in anyone who has had chicken pox.
Those who are immunocompromised — including those undergoing chemotherapy and other cancer treatments and those who have HIV — are among those at higher risk, Chaudhry said.
“I’ve seen very healthy people get shingles, and sometimes it’s gone [specific] reason,” she added.
Don’t think you’ve had chicken pox? Think again.
If you don’t remember having chicken pox as a child, don’t assume you did
outright. You may have a mild course of the virus without symptoms,
according to Chaudhry.
One early sign of shingles: a strange tingling sensation.
Shingles occurs when the latent virus is reactivated by your body’s nerves. While this is happening, you may feel a strange tingling sensation, Chaudhry said.
“The skin just feels different,” she explained. “A few days later, [you may] notice a rash. These are usually red spots that slowly fade [similar to] blisters, usually a whole crop of them. They can range from mildly uncomfortable to very painful.
The main symptom of shingles is a rash, but rarer complications can occur, as in Feinstein’s case.
The shingles rash usually appears in one area of the body, such as the chest, back, or abdomen. Those who are older or immunocompromised may experience a more severe rash. The rash usually goes away in a week or two, but it may take longer to heal if it’s more severe. If you have shingles, your doctor will likely prescribe an antiviral and also recommend symptomatic treatment such as over-the-counter pain medications, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths.
Other common symptoms include fatigue, headache, fever, chills, and/or upset stomach. Less common symptoms include ocular herpes zoster, which can cause vision loss, eye inflammation and severe pain; hearing problems; encephalitis; and pneumonia.
Those who have shingles cannot pass it on, but they can infect someone with chicken pox.
Contact with fluid from a shingles rash can transmit the varicella-zoster virus, potentially leading to chickenpox—not shingles—in someone who has never been exposed. After getting chickenpox, a newly exposed person may later develop shingles.
If you have shingles, keep in mind that your rash is contagious until it crusts over. Keep it covered, avoid scratching or touching it, and wash your hands often, Chaudhry advises.
There is a shingles vaccine, and everyone age 50 and older should get it.
As with all vaccines, the shingles shot is no guarantee that you won’t experience the painful condition of blisters. But it lowers your chances of developing it, and should make your symptoms less severe if you do, Chaudhry says.
It also reduces the risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia, or chronic pain from shingles, which occurs in about 10% to 20% of those who have had shingles. This condition can cause pain for months or even years after the skin has healed, she advises.
Chaudhry recommends that anyone age 50 and older make the two-dose vaccine a top priority — even if they’ve already had singles, since it’s possible to get it multiple times.
“Prevention is always better than cure, and we have the luxury of timing these things,” she said. “When you go to the doctor for your annual, that’s the best time. It really is the best thing for your health and [for] by taking care of yourself.”