Causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention
If you’ve ever had chicken pox then you’re susceptible to shingles. And if you’re over 50, your chances of contracting this decidedly uncomfortable infection just got greater.
Nearly one in three Canadians will get shingles in their lifetime, and more than half of them will be 55-plus. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine that can decrease the likelihood of contracting this painful rash. But before we get to that…
What is shingles and what does it have to do with chicken pox?
Despite their benign-sounding names, chicken pox and shingles share a nasty virus that can result in significant pain for those afflicted. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which causes two different forms of disease.
The primary infection results in chicken pox (varicella). After chicken pox, the virus lies dormant within the central nervous system, but given the right conditions it can reactivate and cause shingles (herpes zoster). Essentially, shingles is an infection of a nerve and the skin surface supplied by that nerve.
Signs and symptoms of shingles
Characterised by small, painful, fluid-filled bumps, the shingles rash is typically located in one area of the body. Pain is the most common symptom of shingles; approximately 75 per cent of individuals will have pain days or even weeks prior to the rash appearing. Often described as throbbing, tingly, burning or stabbing, shingles pain can be constant or can come and go.
Individuals may also present with other symptoms including fever, headache, fatigue, joint pain, muscle weakness and general malaise.
Within three or four days of the rash appearing, shingles lesions can become larger and open; by seven to ten days the lesions crust and individuals are no longer considered infectious.
The most common occurrence of the shingles rash is on the chest, stomach and lower back. It can, however, occur in any area of the body, including the face, and it’s considered serious if it gets into the eye.
Treatment for shingles
Currently, there’s no way to eliminate the shingles virus from the body. In some cases, antiviral medications can be used to reduce symptoms and duration; they’re most effective when started within 72 hours of the rash’s appearance. Pain medications may be used depending on the discomfort level, but it’s not recommended to use topical creams or gels, as they can increase the chance of bacterial skin infections.
Shingles risk factors and prevention
As noted, about one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime. It can occur at any age but is much more common in adults over 50. There’s no specific known cause for the reactivation of the virus, but some triggers could include age, stress and other disease. Those at greater risk of developing shingles are individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those on immune-suppressing medications or chemotherapy, or with cancers or diseases that affect normal immune response.
If you have shingles, it’s best to avoid individuals who are having chemotherapy or who may be pregnant.
If you’ve had chicken pox or its vaccine, being near a person with shingles won’t cause you to develop it. If you’ve never had chicken pox or the vaccine, however, you can develop chicken pox after being in direct contact with a shingles blister or inhaling the airborne VZV virus.
The shingles vaccine
As mentioned earlier, there’s a vaccine available that decreases by half the risk of developing shingles in individuals over the age of 50. And if you do get shingles after being immunized, its symptoms can be significantly reduced.
The vaccine is very safe, with typical post-immunization reactions that can include soreness, redness, swelling, itching or a rash where the vaccine was given. While it’s not covered by public health, it’s available at all Copeman Healthcare Centres and at many pharmacies with a prescription.
Ask anyone who has suffered with the pain and discomfort of shingles and they’ll tell you that having shingles is no fun. Talk to your Copeman physician today about the shingles vaccine.