Shingles, also known as “herpes zoster,” is a viral disease characterized by a painful skin rash and blisters. Nearly one in three Canadians will develop shingles at some point, and more than 130,000 diagnoses are made each year in Canada.
Luckily, a new vaccine called Shingrix has been shown to offer significantly improved protection against shingles. Before we examine how, let’s first look at the causes, symptoms, risk factors and treatment options for shingles.
Causes of shingles
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After we contract chickenpox, the virus retreats into the cells of our nervous system. There, it can remain dormant and reside undetected in the body for decades. Years later, however, the varicella-zoster virus can be triggered and cause shingles.
Clinicians are often asked if shingles is contagious. The answer is no – it is not possible to catch shingles from another person who has shingles. However, individuals who have never had chickenpox (or the chickenpox vaccine) can develop chickenpox after direct (skin-to-skin) contact with a shingles blister, or by inhaling the airborne varicella-zoster virus. For example, if a grandparent has shingles, they have the ability to pass on the virus to grandchildren who have never contracted chickenpox or been vaccinated against it.
Signs, symptoms & treatment
The first sign of shingles is an unusual sensation on the skin. You may experience itching, burning, pain or tingling on an area of your body. Within one to two days, a painful rash with blisters appears; within three to four days, the blisters can progress into open sores or ulcers. The rash usually scabs over within seven to 10 days and disappears altogether after three to four weeks. Scarring and skin discoloration may persist long after the shingles have resolved.
Treatment of shingles usually includes a combination of pain-relieving and antiviral medications. Antiviral medications stop the virus from multiplying, accelerate healing of skin lesions and reduce both the severity and duration of pain.
In most individuals, shingles runs its course without resulting in any lasting health problems. However, in some individuals, complications can occur.
About one in five people with shingles will develop post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with PHN continue feeling pain or discomfort, even after their rash disappears. This can last for months – or even years – and can lead to other complications such as sleep loss, weight loss and depression.
Other rare complications of shingles include pneumonia, loss of hearing or vision (if the rash is near the ear or eye), skin infections, scarring, inflammation of the brain and, in extreme cases, death.
The Shingrix vaccine
As alluded to earlier, the misery of shingles is largely preventable by vaccination. The new vaccine — Shingrix — has been shown to reduce the risk of shingles by more than 90 per cent.
The Shingrix vaccine, which is now available in Canada, has demonstrated advancements in both the effectiveness of prevention and the duration of time that protection lasts. It represents a significant improvement over Zostavax, a moderately effective shingles vaccine.
SHINGLES VACCINE COMPARISON: Shingrix vs. Zostavax
Who should consider getting the Shingrix vaccine?
Shingles can affect people of all ages but is most commonly seen in individuals above the age of 50 or in those with immune systems weakened by medication or disease.
If you’re over 50 years of age, have had a previous outbreak of shingles or have any further questions about shingles, please contact your Copeman Healthcare physician, nurse or nurse practitioner to learn more about the Shingrix vaccine.