The Case For Prevention Against Shingles If You’re A Senior

Dec 15, 2023

“Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

When you have chickenpox, the virus gets into your nerve roots and stays there (becomes dormant) long after you get over the chickenpox.

If the virus becomes active again, it can cause shingles.”

Shingles: Trust Me, It’s No Party!

Speaking from personal experience, shingles is not a virus you want to get.

I remember to this day when I was diagnosed with it. It was March 22, 2008. We had weekend guests arriving from out of town to celebrate my upcoming birthday and I was in a foul mood. Irritated, edgy and angry. I felt like hell!

I had a blinding headache, fatigue, a slight fever and a burning, aching sensation around the right side of my torso starting from my back, wrapping around my side to my tummy and travelling down my right leg. I had no idea what this was.

When my guests arrived, I explained my situation to my friend Barb who immediately exclaimed, “Let’s get you to hospital. Now! The sooner the better because I think you’re getting shingles. My dad just had it and your symptoms are exactly like his were.”

She added words along the line of, “Getting the medication to fight this virus quickly can mean a less agonising few weeks and less long-term effects.”

So, off we went. And she was correct. It was shingles. The blisters had not yet emerged but the doctor confirmed it was definitely shingles. A very expensive antiviral drug was prescribed and I went home to tough it out. I was almost 54.

And tough it out I did. And still do. On and off 25 years now. Post-herpetic pain, though mild, makes its nasty return when I get run down or stressed out.

Who’s Vulnerable

It’s estimated that roughly 130,000 Canadians are affected annually by shingles. The medical term is Varicella Zoster Virus, (VZV). More than 90 per cent of those people are over the age of 50 and have had chickenpox at some point in their lifetime. This very fact puts them at potential risk for contracting the disease. You may wonder why this is so? The simple answer is that shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

What’s It Like?

Most people describe their experience, (as do I), along the lines of pure, unadulterated evil—burning, fiery pain.

Shingles typically presents as a rash with painful blisters appearing on one’s torso, the chest, abdomen, or face. Usually the virus symptoms only affect one side of the patient’s body. The pain is usually described as burning, as if a red-hot poker was searing the surface of the skin. It can be an aching pain or electric shock-like. Even the lightest touch, or the rub of clothing or the gentle splash of water against the affected area causes excruciating pain. And it lasts for seemingly ever.

I recall weeping, crying in agony and saying things like “I wouldn’t wish this on my enemies,”— not that I have any as far as I know. But you get the gist.

Bathing hurt, wearing clothing hurt, lying in bed hurt, sitting hurt. Thinking hurt. Let’s face it, everything hurt.

When the rash finally goes away people can still, and I can attest to this, continue to experience what’s referred to as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a chronic and debilitating pain that can last for months or years.

What To Do?

Statistics say that nearly 1 in 3 Canadians will develop HZ (Herpes Zoster) in their lifetime. It’s generally older adults and those who are immunocompromised who are at greater risk of developing shingles but it can happen to anyone, any age.

With that said, an important measure to guard against getting shingles is for people at risk to get vaccinated – especially if they’re over 50 years old and have had chicken pox in the past. We recommend speaking with your doctor to see if they recommend vaccination against shingles, and if so, to make the necessary arrangements.

Each province/territory in Canada has their own particular requirements and eligibility status for its citizens to receive the vaccine (free or at a cost), so check with your healthcare provider for more details. And for a comprehensive understanding of the shingles virus, treatment for it, and how it can be spread plus other critical information, visit this Government of Canada website.

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