Shaking off the Shingles

Shaking off the Shingles

Many of us will know someone who has been afflicted by the very unpleasant effects of Shingles. Shingles presents as a rash of painful blisters that usually appears on the torso, but can also affect the legs or face, on one side of the body only. It is accompanied by burning, throbbing or stabbing pain that lasts up to 30 days. In some people long-term nerve pain (after the rash has healed) can be a complication of the virus. This “post-herpetic neuralgia” afflicts 1:3 people who have had shingles.

Shingles is caused by the same virus that gives rise to chicken pox. After you’ve had chicken pox the varicella zoster virus remains dormant in your nervous system and can be triggered later in life (by causes not yet understood) to re-emerge as Shingles. One in three people who’ve had chicken pox will develop Shingles at some time in their life. When you’re young you tend to have a stronger immune system and this keeps the virus in check. As you age it becomes easier for the virus to break through your immune defences. This is why two thirds of cases occur in people over 50 years of age and the risk rises to 1:2 for people who live into their 80s. You may also be more likely to be affected at any age if your immunity is compromised in other ways, such as if you are having cancer treatment, have a chronic condition like Type 2 Diabetes or are under very high levels of stress.

Pain is usually the first indication that you have shingles. It can be a tingling, itching or burning feeling, sometimes with random stabbing pains. You might also feel systemically unwell, with tiredness, fever or a headache. This is followed by the development of a rash, which may start out as just red-ness of the skin, but develops into blistering.  Because the blisters tend to follow nerve paths they’re usually linear and almost always on just one side of your body. This blistering may appear on your torso or on your face, neck or scalp. It is usually very painful or sensitive. It pays to remember that the fluid from these blisters can spread the virus to other people if they come into contact with it. Good hygiene is important.

It is recommended that you see your GP as soon as possible if you think you have Shingles, ideally within 48–72 hours of the rash first appearing. This allows you to discuss the option of having a prescribed antiviral medication, which can be helpful in reducing the risk of complications. The earlier that antiviral medication is given, the more effective it is.

In New Zealand there is a vaccine called Zostavax ® available for anyone over the age of 50, which has been clinically proven to reduce either your chances of getting Shingles, or the severity of the attack, as well as the risk of neuropathic pain.  From 1 April this year the vaccine is to be funded for anyone 65 and over, with a 2 year catch-up programme in place for those aged 66 – 80 years old. People in their 50’s might like to consider paying for immunisation as part of a pro-active personal health management plan. The vaccine is a single injection and you only need one dose. For more information about this option, talk to your GP or Practice Nurse.

Here’s a useful information video about Shingles: