Most people have heard of the condition referred to as shingles. It is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that gave you chickenpox as a kid. Almost anyone can get shingles. It is thought that one in three people will experience shingles during their lifetime. The reason why people develop shingles is not known. This month we shall discuss signs and symptoms of shingles and if there is a means of prevention. This year there is a new shingles vaccine, that is thought to be more effective than the previous vaccine
Almost everyone has had chickenpox at sometime in their life. This is usually a short-lived affliction that causes a lot of skin itching and goes away after a week or two. The truly sad part is that it doesn’t really go away. It is thought that the virus that causes chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus) is also responsible for shingles. After your body successfully fights off chickenpox, some of the virus travels up into nerve fibers and becomes dormant. Later, the virus reactivates and travels down the nerve fibers to the skin surface. This causes the classic symptoms of shingles:
- Numbness, tingling, itching, or pain in the place where the rash is about to appear
- Fever (sometimes with chills), nausea, or headache
- The appearance of bumps or blisters that contain clear fluid
- A rash or odd sensations usually appearing in a band or patch on just one side of the body (Any part of the body can be involved, including the back, chest, abdomen, arms, legs, or face
Remember these symptoms, it can save you a great deal of misery one day. If you, or someone you know, mentions these symptoms, GO DIRECTLY TO A DOCTOR. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL MORNING OR A MORE CONVENIENT TIME. Generally, your Physician will order a course of antiviral medications. This slows down the rapid growth of, and subsequent nerve damage caused by, the varicella-zoster virus. These medications help your immune system to “catch up” and fight off the virus. It is essential to start the antiviral drugs as soon as possible. Delaying treatment will not lead to a good outcome and can leave you with long lasting nerve pain.
This year there are two vaccines to help prevent shingles. The original one is called Zostavax. In studies, people who received this single dose vaccine had a reduced occurrence of shingles by about 50%. But this effectiveness decreased with age. A new multidose vaccine, called Shingrix, has been shown to reduce the incidence of shingles by 90% in all age ranges. Shingrix just became available in Canada in early 2018. Both vaccines are indicated for all people over the age of 50 years old. If you have had shingles in the past 12 months, speak with your Doctor or your Heart Pharmacist to see which vaccine is right for you. There are a few side effects experienced after receiving these vaccines. It might sting at the injection site for a day or two. You may also experience mild flu like symptoms for a few days. There is also a chance that you might develop a short lived rash at the injection site.
It is not certain what causes the varicella (chickenpox) virus to reactivate. People have told me that they were feeling “run down” at the time. Sometimes it was after a particularly bad bout of the flu. Others have said it was after a very stressful event; such as a death in the family. Another person told me that they hadn’t been getting enough sleep. There is also a thought that with routine vaccination of children against chickenpox, which I think is a good thing, there is a possible increased incidence of shingles in the middle aged and elderly. With fewer children with active chickenpox, there will be reduced virus exposure to parents and grandparents. This is increased risk is only a theory. All of these things can lower the activity of your immune system, so stay healthy and get lots of rest.