Solutions available to prevent four common illnesses

Panhandle Health

Contributed by Regional West Medical Center

Shingles, pneumonia, influenza, and MRSA; all are diseases that are sometimes painful, often expensive to treat, and in some cases, deadly to their victims.

Shingles vaccine

According to Nancy Sloan, assistant director of clinical services in Regional West Medical Center’s Pharmacy Department, an estimated one million Americans a year develop a painful skin rash or blisters called shingles. Caused by the Varicella Zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox, shingles can only develop in someone who has had chickenpox. Because the virus continues to live in nerves near the spinal cord, it can reappear many years later in the form of shingles.

Shingles often appears as a band of blisters that wraps from the middle of the back around one side of the chest to the breastbone. Other parts of the body can be involved as well, including the neck, face, or scalp. Symptoms often begin two to three days before blisters and/or rash occur and include: burning, itching, or numbness; fever, chills, and headaches; upset stomach and fatigue.

Possible complications from shingles:

  • One in five patients experiences a complication called postherpetic neuralgia. This condition causes the skin to remain painful and sensitive to touch for months or even years after the rash clears up. Paralysis, encephalitis and hearing loss are also possible.
  • Visual impairment or drooping eyelids
  • Scarring of the skin and bacterial infections

A vaccine for shingles called Zostavax® was approved in 2006. Clinical trials have shown the vaccine prevents shingles in people age 60 and older. It can also reduce the pain associated with shingles.

Pneumococcal vaccine

Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. When these bacteria invade the lungs, they can cause pneumonia. They can also invade the bloodstream, causing bacteremia, and/or invade the tissues and fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis. Sloan says the statistics are alarming: one person out of 20 who gets Pneumococcal pneumonia will die, two out of 10 who get Pneumococcal bacteremia will die, and three out of 10 people who get pneumococcal meningitis will die.

Drugs like penicillin were once effective in treating these infections, but the disease has become more resistant to these drugs, making treatment difficult.

Fortunately, the Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine protects against 23 types of Pneumococcal bacteria and is a safe, readily available vaccine with few side effects. A second dose is recommended after five years for people 65 years and younger who get the vaccination.

Influenza vaccine

According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year an estimated 25 to 50 million Americans contact influenza, and 150,000 are subsequently hospitalized with complications. A contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, influenza can cause mild to severe illness, and can even lead to death.  The virus is spread primarily through coughing or sneezing, by direct contact, through contaminated surfaces, and by airborne particles. The most frequent complication of influenza is viral pneumonia. A secondary bacterial pneumonia is a less common complication but has a high fatality rate. Other complications include inflammation of the heart and worsening of such pulmonary diseases as bronchitis.

Typical influenza is characterized by a sudden onset of a high fever, aching muscles, sore throat, and non-productive cough. Additional symptoms may include runny nose, headache, a burning sensation in the chest, and sensitivity to light.

The single best way to prevent influenza is to get a flu vaccination each year. There are two types of vaccines:

  • The “flu shot.” The flu shot is approved for use in people six months of age and older, including healthy people, and people with chronic medical conditions.
  • The nasal-spray flu vaccine. A vaccine approved for use in healthy people ages two to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus

MRSA is a type of staphylococcus or “staph” bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics. MRSA bacteria are more likely to develop when antibiotics are used too often or are not used correctly.

“Given enough time, bacteria can outsmart antibiotics so that these medicines no longer work well,” Sloan said. “That is why MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria are sometimes called ‘super bugs.’”

MRSA bacteria fall into two categories, community associated and health care associated. Community associated MRSA can often be traced to places where close contact is common, such as in day care centers, schools, athletics, or prisons/jails. Health care associated MRSA infections occur most commonly among persons in hospitals and health care facilities.

MRSA is transmitted most frequently by direct skin-to-skin contact or contact with shared items or surfaces that have come into contact with someone else’s infection.

Early recognition of MRSA is key to successful treatment. It most often appears as a skin infection, like a boil or abscess. It also might infect a surgical wound. In either case, the area would appear swollen, red and pus-filled. Sometimes, people who actually have a staph skin infection mistake it for a spider bite.

Take steps to protect yourself from MRSA by practicing good hygiene. Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water or use hand sanitizer. Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage and avoid contact with other people’s wounds or bandages. Avoid sharing personal items like towels, razors or clothing.

Sloan has several tips for antibiotic use. Don’t take antibiotics unless it’s absolutely necessary and know that antibiotics can only cure bacterial infections, not viral infections. Always take all your antibiotic medicine as prescribed by your doctor. Using only part of the medicine can cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop.

For more information on any of these illnesses, vaccines, and/or antibiotics, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist.

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