Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Although you recover after having chickenpox, the virus does not leave your body. Instead, it goes to "sleep" quietly in the cells of your nervous system. Later on in life, the virus can "wake up," or reactivate, causing shingles. Although shingles can affect people of all ages, it most often affects adults over the age of 50.
Shingles appears as a painful rash with blisters, often in the shape of a band on the side of the face or body. The pain can start days before the rash and can be intense enough to negatively impact your daily activities and sleep. This pain is often worse in older adults. Although shingles often appears on the chest and back, if the rash is near the eyes it can cause permanent vision loss.
In most people, the rash disappears after a few weeks, leaving some with scars and skin discolouration. However, for 10% to 15% of people, shingles can develop into postherpetic neuralgia, a condition that causes painful or unpleasant burning sensations where the rash was. This pain can be very severe and although it usually resolves in a few weeks or months, in some cases it may last for years even after the rash is gone.
Am I at risk?
Up to 1 in 3 people will get shingles. Only those who have had chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles, but people who have had very mild cases of chickenpox may not even realize they've been infected by the virus.
The virus is most likely to reactivate when your immune system is weakened. Medical conditions such as cancer or HIV infection can weaken your immune system, as can certain medications, such as chemotherapy or steroids.
The best way to protect yourself against shingles is to get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated helps boosts your immune system against the virus, making you less likely to develop shingles. Some people who have been vaccinated may still develop shingles, but in these cases the vaccine may help to make it less severe. The vaccine also reduces your chances of developing postherpetic neuralgia. Since some people who have had very mild cases of chickenpox may not even realize they've been infected with the virus, you may want to get vaccinated even if you're unsure if you've had chickenpox.
There are 2 vaccines available for people 50 and older. One is given as a single shot, while the other is given as 2 separate injections, 2 to 6 months apart. Your health care professional will determine which one is best suited for you.
We know that with your busy life it can be hard to find the time for vaccination. We can help. Our pharmacists undergo injection training to provide a convenient vaccination experience - no appointment needed.*
*Applicable vaccines and costs vary by province. Prescription may be required. Professional fees may apply.