Seniors 'more prone to shingles complications'

"It still throbs and it affects my sleep," said the 72-year-old retired engineer Tham Sun Nio. "I've tried painkillers from Western doctors, acupuncture and Chinese medicine, but it doesn't go away."
PHOTO: Seniors 'more prone to shingles complications'

SINGAPORE - Retired engineer Tham Sun Nio thought his battle with shingles was over when the painful rash on his back and torso healed in about two weeks.

Little did he know he would spend 12 years and about $40,000 treating a chronic nerve pain that developed as a side-effect.

"It still throbs and it affects my sleep," said the 72-year-old. "I've tried painkillers from Western doctors, acupuncture and Chinese medicine, but it doesn't go away."

About one in 10 shingles patients over 50 develops chronic nerve pain that lasts more than three months, a new study by the National Skin Centre (NSC) has found. Most heal in six months but some suffer for years. The condition is much less acute than shingles, which Mr Tham described as "fire burning your skin". However, the duration of pain it causes also increases with age, the study showed.

"As people get older, they are more likely to develop complications from illnesses including shingles because their immunity wanes," said Dr Pan Jiun Yit, a consultant dermatologist at NSC and lead investigator of the shingles study.

About one in three who gets chicken pox suffers from shingles later in life, said Dr Pan.

The study was based on 347 NSC patients and sponsored by a shingles vaccine manufacturer. It also showed that an episode of shingles can cost more than $300 to treat. Most patients spend about $125.50 on treatment through their GP and about a quarter of them go on to the NSC for treatment due to complications, spending an average of $190 there.

A patient's employer also incurs $140 on average, due to work forgone when the patient is on medical leave. Treating chronic nerve pain due to shingles also adds an average of $172 to the patient's bill, NSC data showed.

"The amount spent on treatment can be a burden to elderly patients if they are not employed, not to mention the suffering," Dr Pan said.

A vaccine for shingles, Zostavax, costs about $200 and is recommended to those over 50. It is up to 70 per cent effective, but this falls with age as the elderly have weaker immune systems, said infectious diseases doctor Leong Hoe Nam.

kashc@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on June 17, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.