Shingles is triggered by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It causes a blistering, burning rash along specific sensory nerve fibres. Approximately 30 percent of people who have had chickenpox will develop shingles at some point in their life.
When someone recovers from chickenpox, the virus that caused it (the VZV) remains dormant in the nerve ganglia. It can then reactivate, resulting in the onset of symptoms in the area serviced by the affected nerves. This is why it typically develops on one part or side of the body (thorax, abdomen, back, lower limbs, neck, face, scalp or eyes). Signs of the disease include:
- Neuralgia (pain, tingling or increased sensitivity) in the area where the rash will develop
- Diffuse redness in the affected location
- Red fluid-filled blisters similar to chickenpox
- Severe or moderate pain (burning or “lightning bolt” sensation)
Shingles can also lead to various complications of varying severity, depending on the location of the rash. The most common of them is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) – pain that lasts months after recovery.
The odds of developing shingles a second time are about the same as the first time. That being said, most people will experience only one episode in their lifetime.
It’s also important to know that someone who is not immunized and has never had chickenpox can catch it through direct contact with the shingles rash. However, the risk of contagion is still lower than after exposure to chickenpox.
Risk factors for shingles include age (being over 50) and a weakened or suppressed immune system due to various factors, such as stress, cancer, diabetes and the use of corticosteroids or immunosuppressive drugs.
The most effective preventive measure is not catching chickenpox. Note that the chickenpox vaccine, which is now part of the regular childhood immunization schedule, is also available to adults who have never had the virus.
Since one of the risk factors for shingles is a deficient immune system, it is recommended that you strengthen your immunity through a healthy lifestyle – balanced diet, exercise and sufficient rest.
A shingles vaccine has also been available for the last few years. The vaccine is intended for people 50 and over, but, as is the case with any vaccine, it does not completely eliminate the risk of developing the disease. If you do get shingles after being vaccinated, however, it could reduce its severity, duration and complications. It is contraindicated for certain people. Ask your health professional if this vaccine is right for you.
Good to know!
Many Uniprix-affiliated pharmacies offer a vaccination service, which includes flu shots, travel vaccines and the shingles vaccine. Ask your family pharmacist about this service.
Antiviral drugs are the main course of treatment for shingles. They fight viruses, help minimize pain and accelerate healing. They are also believed to reduce the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia. Treatment with antiviral drugs must begin within three days of the onset of the rash.
Applying warm compresses three to four times a day is an additional measure that can help reduce the itching. Products formulated with colloidal oatmeal can also provide some relief.
To learn more about shingles, the shingles vaccine and shingles treatments, speak with your family pharmacists. They’ll be more than happy to answer your questions!