If you’ve had chickenpox, you could be among the 130,000 Canadians who contract shingles, also known as herpes zoster, every year. The virus that causes chickenpox stays in your body and can reactivate at any time during your life. The risk of the virus reactivating increases with factors including age, especially being older than 60, and in the presence of diseases that weaken the immune system such as HIV and cancer. About 15% of people who had chickenpox develop shingles.
Recognizing the symptoms of shingles
Shingles cause a painful rash with blisters filled with fluid along a nerve tract on one side of the body, usually on the chest, but also on other places like the arm or face. The rash lasts a few weeks. However the pain sometimes persists for months or even years.
Some people experience itching, tingling or pain before the rash appears.
If you think you have shingles, especially if you develop a rash around one eye, consult a doctor immediately. Your doctor can prescribe antiviral medication to fight the infection. Rapid treatment, especially within the first three days of getting the rash, can reduce the duration and severity of the illness.
Ask your pharmacist about pain relieving medication. If the pain persists despite taking pain medication, it is important to see your doctor again to reassess the treatment.
Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against shingles and it is recommended for everyone, age 60 and over, and for some people age 50 and over who are at greater risk of complications.
There are two shingle vaccines available in Canada. One is a live vaccine with a weakened version of the virus, and requires one injection. It is suitable for patients with a normal immune system age 60 and older, although it may be used in patients aged 50 and older. The second is a non-living vaccine made of a dead virus component, and requires a second injection two to six months later.
Your health care provider will discuss with you the pros and cons of each vaccine and recommend the vaccine best suited to your needs and health conditions.
Check with your pharmacist if the shingles vaccine is available free of charge in your province, and if your pharmacy offers vaccination services. It may also be paid for by your private drug insurance plan.
The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide complete information on the subject matter or to replace the advice of a health professional. This information does not constitute medical consultation, diagnosis or opinion and should not be interpreted as such. Please consult your health care provider if you have any questions about your health, medications or treatment.