General · 9th November 2014
Shingles (Varicella Zoster ) Virus
Shingles, or the varicella zoster virus (VZV), belongs to a group of viruses called herpesviruses. It is the same virus that causes chicken pox. When an individual gets chicken pox, the virus does not die but rather hibernates in nerve roots called sensory ganglia. In some people and in some circumstances the virus can be reactivated. This is what is known as shingles.
Shingles can occur in anyone who has had chicken pox. Any adult has a 25% chance of developing shingles. Age increases incidence. An adult over the age of 60 is ten times more likely to develop shingles as compared to a younger adult. Other individuals at risk include those whose immune systems are stressed or compromised. This includes individuals with HIV, those with cancer and/or those with autoimmune disorders who take oral steroids for long periods of time. An individual with shingles can pass the virus on to someone else but in order for this to occur, the individual must come into direct contact with the fluid from a shingles sore. What this means is an adult can pass the virus to someone else who has not had chicken pox; this individual will then get chicken pox, not shingles. When children (or adults) have chicken pox they cannot cause someone else to get shingles, although shingles can be activated in others at this time.
The first sign of shingles is often skin sensitivity; numbness or tingling that causes itching, burning or sharp pain. A red rash then develops; within the reddened areas, fluid will collect in blisters. Because the virus hides in nerves, the symptoms develop along specific nerve roots, in areas called dermatomes. Common areas for the rash to appear are around the trunk or one side of the face or eye. Some people can also experience fever, chills, headache and an upset stomach. The rash and blisters usually disappear within a few weeks; sometimes it takes longer for the pain to disappear.
Although there is no cure for shingles, it is important to seek medical attention as early as possible as prescription antiviral medication can lessen the length and severity of an attack. Common antiviral medications include acyclovir, valacyclovir or famicyclovir. It is also important to complete the medication. Taking medication can reduce the chance of developing postherpetic neuralgia, where the shingles pain persists for long after the rash has healed. Having one outbreak of shingles does not prevent you for getting shingles again.
Seniors aged 50 and over are eligible for a vaccine called Zostavax. Research has shown that while those over age 50 incur benefit, the greatest benefit occurs in those over the age of 60. This vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of getting shingles by 50%. It is also been shown to reduce the duration of the illness as well as the risk of postherpetic neuralgia. It can be given to those who have had a prior attack but not until one year after the illness. Zostavax is given as a one -time vaccination. Because it is a new vaccine, there is still limited data regarding how long it protects individuals.
Zostavax is available by prescription only. It is not covered under MSP but may be covered under certain extended health plans. The vaccine costs approximated $200. It is now available at Peoples Drug here on Quadra.