Also known as herpes zoster, the painful infection of the nerves is caused by the varicella-zoster virus – the same one that causes chickenpox. If you have had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your nervous system, and it can be reactivated by manifesting itself in the form of shingles. It does not directly, but given antiviral and painkillers to ease and speed up the process.
Who is at risk of getting shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but some factors increase your risk. Shingles occurs more often in adults 50 and older, and the older you get, the more you are likely. People who have a depressed immune system due to illness, taking immunosuppressive drugs (such as corticosteroids), HIV (AIDS), certain forms of cancer, radiation therapy or chemotherapy are more vulnerable.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Shingles usually affects only one side of the body (usually the left side or the right side of the torso). You will feel the sensitivity, pain, tingling, itching, numbness or a burning sensation in the affected area, followed by a very red rash. This form of small fluid-filled blisters that burst and form crusts. Typically, the rash lasts seven to 10 days and disappears after a month, but the pain can persist in some people for three months or more. The symptoms that precede the rash may include headache, fatigue and sensitivity to light. If you believe that you are shingles, see your doctor immediately because antiviral are more effective if you start the 72 hours of the onset of the rash.
What are the potential long-term effects of shingles?
Some people experience intense neuralgic pains that last for weeks or months (post herpetic neuralgia or PHN). If the virus affects certain nerves, it can cause facial paralysis, ear pain, and loss of taste or hearing. Shingles can also cause brain inflammation, blurred vision or balance problems.
How can I prevent shingles?
If you have never had chickenpox, arrange to not catch it! Avoid contact with anyone who has been infected shingles. If shingles is not transmissible between people, it can infect anyone who has not had chickenpox and could then catch it. There is a vaccine against chickenpox: talk with your doctor or pharmacist. There is also a vaccine against shingles.
Should I be vaccinated against shingles?
In Canada, the vaccine against shingles is recommended for 60 and over, and also in adults over 50, who have a history of herpes zoster. Get vaccinated does not guarantee that you will never make shingles, but it really reduces your risk. And if you do get shingles, the vaccine can reduce the severity and the risk of complications, such as post herpetic neuralgia. The vaccine is not recommended for those who have a weakened immune system or who are taking immunosuppressive drugs, nor to pregnant women or very allergic to neomycin or gelatin. Discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist.