Prevention & Recovery

What you need to know about shingles

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Prevention & Recovery

What you need to know about shingles

Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is a painful rash caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Some people recover in a matter of weeks, but others suffer chronic pain and debilitating symptoms for much longer.

One in five Canadians will get shingles at some point in life, says Dr. Shelly McNeil, professor of medicine and infectious diseases consultant at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. “Some estimate that the rate can be as high as one in three, most often in people over the age of 60, but not always,” says Dr. McNeil.

The virus cannot be transmitted from one person to another. However, if someone who has never had chickenpox comes in close contact with someone who has shingles, he or she could develop chickenpox, says Dr. McNeil.

The shingles rash starts as a localized patch of blisters that typically appears on one side of the chest or back and is often accompanied by a burning sensation. “Seek medical attention right away,” says Dr. McNeil. “If you’re able to take the antiviral medication within the first 72 hours, it can prevent the severity of the shingles rash and reduce the chances of long-term pain.”

The shingles vaccine, Zostavax, is recommended for people aged 60 and older, and they should get it, urges Dr. McNeil. “Though it only reduces the chance of getting shingles by about 50 percent,” she says, “vaccinated people tend to have less severe shingles, and about 67 percent are less likely to suffer from chronic pain following a shingles episode.”

Talk to your doctor, public health nurse or pharmacist about whether the vaccine is right for you. It’s not covered by provincial or territorial health plans and, depending on where you live in Canada,it costs between $185 and $200. “It’s approved for people over 50, recommended for people over 60,” says Dr. McNeil, “but not publicly funded.” She also notes that the vaccine shouldn’t be given to people with a compromised immune system, such as cancer patients or those on immunosuppressants.

From exercise to eating better, learn how to start living healthier at any age.                                                
This content is vetted by medical experts

This story was originally titled "Stay On Top Of Your Health" in the December 2014 issue.
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Prevention & Recovery

What you need to know about shingles