Shingles: A Legacy of Chicken Pox

Posted by on Mar 4, 2013 in Health Signals |

“Shingles” is a painful, blistering rash experienced by about 130,000 Canadians every year. Your risk of having an episode of shingles increases after age 50, but the majority of people experiencing shingles are 60 or older. Here are the ABC’s of shingles:


What are the symptoms of shingles?
Shingles symptoms begin with headache, fever and the chills, and upset stomach. These often occur before the rash appears. Usually the rash occurs on one side of the trunk of the body but can also erupt on the buttocks, neck, face and scalp. The rash produces painful, reddish, fluid-filled blisters, which last 7 to 10 days.

During this time, the blisters break, dry out, then crust over. The discomfort can range from an itchy, tingling sensation to severe pain. If severe, an infection can last more than a month. Unfortunately, some people have pain that persists even after the rash is gone (this is called post-herpetic neuralgia or PHN). 

What causes shingles?
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox; namely, varicella-zoster or herpes zoster. After chickenpox symptoms have passed, the virus can hide out in the root of some nerves and then re-activate at any time to cause a painful skin rash. The rash occurs in the area of the body connected to the infected nerves.

Who can develop shingles?
About 1 in 5 adults will develop shingles. You must have been previously exposed to the virus and had chickenpox. Although it can occur at any age, the majority of people experiencing shingles are those over the age of 60. Some people may have more than one episode. Often an attack occurs when your immune system is already compromised.

How is shingles treated?
If you suspect you might have shingles, see your physician as soon as possible. The rash is usually easy to identify. Anti-viral drugs can help stop the spread of the rash and reduce the length of the infection. However, to be effective, these drugs must be given early in the course of the illness.

Cool, moist compresses, calamine lotion, or other ointments applied to the rash can reduce the pain. Your physician or pharmacist can suggest the best products for you to use. 

Is shingles contagious?
To get shingles, you must already have had chickenpox at some point in your life. When you have shingles, the fluid from the blisters does contain the virus. Therefore, you could give chickenpox to someone who has not had it already. Avoid contact with people who have not had chickenpox.

However, the reverse is not true; a person with chickenpox cannot give shingles to someone else because shingles occurs from the virus that is already present inside the body.

Can shingles be prevented?

A shingles vaccine is now available. The vaccine is not 100% effective but it does reduce your chances of developing shingles by about 50 percent. If you do get shingles after receiving the vaccine, you are more likely to have a milder infection and less likely to experience PHN. 

Currently the vaccine is not covered by provincial health plans; you must pay privately. Because it requires specialized storage, not all clinics offer the vaccine.  Consult your physician to decide if you should consider receiving this vaccine.


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