Man on complication from shingles: It felt like being burnt

Costly: Retiree Tham Sun Nio has to spend about $3,000 each year for medication and acupuncture sessions to alleviate pain arising from postherpetic neuralgia.
PHOTO: Man on complication from shingles: It felt like being burnt

SINGAPORE - In the past 12 years, he has seen more than 10 doctors, ranging from general practitioners to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physicians.

Each year, he spends about $3,000 on his weekly visits for medication and acupuncture sessions - all to block the throbbing pain that he feels on the right side of his waist.

Retiree Tham Sun Nio, 72, is suffering from post-herpetic neuralgia, a complication arising from his bout of shingles in 2002.

In acute cases, the pain usually fades away with the rash, but the throb-bing, sharp sensation persists for Mr Tham.

One in five people who get shingles will experience this complication, said Dr Pan Jiun Yit, a consultant dermatologist with the National Skin Centre.

While he now rates the degree of pain four out of 10, Mr Tham recalled how he had sleepless nights due to the pain.

Said the retired engineer: "It was painful, itchy and it felt like I was being burnt by fire. I felt like that for 24 hours."

Even the slightest touch of fabric on his skin hurt.

Alternatives

Initially, Mr Tham relied on painkillers to reduce the pain, but decided to opt for alternatives after five years.

The painkillers made him lethargic, and affected his focus at work, he explained. So he started hopping from one TCM doctor to the next instead to improve his health.

The acupuncture sessions have helped to halve the intensity of pain, Mr Tham claimed.

The persistent pain is a nuisance, but he is resigned to it. "What to do? No choice," he lamented.

Shingles Q & A

One in three people here are at risk of developing shingles, which is a rash caused by the re-activation of the same virus responsible for chicken pox.

The findings of a National Skin Centre shingles study involving 347 patients released recently show it can cost up to $340 per patient for each shingles episode.

We speak to Dr Pan Jiun Yit, a consultant dermatologist and the study's lead investigator, to find out more about the viral disease.

1 What is shingles?

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is caused by the re-activation of the varicella zoster virus. This virus, which is also responsible for chicken pox, lies dormant in the nerves until it is triggered again. The rash, usually on one side of the body or face, is often accompanied by pain.

"Imagine being operated on without any anaesthesia. That is the kind of painful sensation that people describe when they suffer from shingles," Dr Pan said.

2 What complications arise from getting shingles?

Shingles may lead to post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), in which the pain from shingles persists beyond three months despite the rash's disappearance.

PHN is a result of the herpes zoster virus damaging nerve fibres.

More serious complications include cornea scarring and blindness for those with shingles on the face.

3 How do I know when I will get shingles?

"If you have had chicken pox before, there is no way to know when, where or at what time you will have shingles," Dr Pan said.

While it can be triggered at any age following a chicken pox outbreak, the risk and severity of shingles increases with age, when the immunity towards the virus wanes.

4 Can I still get shingles if I am vaccinated against chicken pox?

It decreases the risk of getting shingles, but not entirely.

5 Is there a cure?

Patients can only suppress the virus through anti-viral medicine and reduce the symptoms of shingles.

Those who have had chicken pox and are above the age of 50 can opt for a one-off shingles vaccination which costs between $220 to $250.

About the survey

To update existing data to correctly reflect the burden of shingles on the ageing population, the National Skin Centre (NSC) studied 347 shingles patients, aged 50 and above, from last August to January this year.

These patients had consulted general practitioners before being referred to NSC.

The last time a similar study was done was in 1997, said Dr Pan Jiun Yit, the study's lead investigator.

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