Get the shingles vaccine — avoid awakening the chicken pox virus

Shingles, that nasty virus that lies dormant in our nervous system can strike with a vengeance.

Get the shingles vaccine — avoid awakening the chicken pox virus

As we age we become more prone to medical issues. Our immune systems simply don’t have the same ability to protect us. Sometimes, despite our best efforts to eat right and to exercise and to do all the right things to maintain a healthy quality of life, we can be blind-sided by just such a medical condition. Shingles is like that.

Shingles, that nasty virus that lies dormant in our nervous system can strike with a vengeance. If you have had chicken pox which sources say is probably 99 per cent of those over age 50, then you can get shingles and according to Immunize BC, one in three Canadians could. You don’t want it! The best way to avoid it or at least to lessen the condition should you suffer an outbreak is to get vaccinated. There are shots for flu, for pneumonia, for tetanus to name only a few and there is definitely a very effective vaccine available for herpes zoster or shingles.

When I mention shingles and the importance of getting vaccinated, people are often quite casual, even unconcerned about the necessity of inoculation. “I think I am too young.” “Not really thought about it.” “I keep meaning to get them.” “I’m not sure if I had chicken pox.” ”Yes, but they are expensive.” “Do they even work?”

I stress how the newer two dose Shingrix regime (developed in 2017) appears to be very successful. (The Canada Immunization Guide suggests 90-plus per cent effectiveness in those over 70.) Many don’t appreciate how serious shingles is, how truly debilitating it can be especially for older people. Ask anyone who has had it.

A shingles attack tends to follow a predictable pattern: initially, a sensation, a discomfort, perhaps, an irritation, feeling maybe like a pinch or a pulled muscle; possibly fever and headaches and even nausea; then, a few days later, the rash and then the blisters and the oozing and eventually, the drying of the blisters. Of course, all of this can be terribly uncomfortable, really, really painful with itching, burning, pulsing jabs, often with little relief. Sleep can be difficult and life can be decidedly miserable for the duration. (And, if shingles occurs on the face, even more dangerous issues like blindness, deafness, paralysis, can arise). Generally, however, it runs its course, and in two to four weeks depending on severity, most people are recovered. All of this is bad enough.

Sometimes, it doesn’t end there. Sometimes, again according to Immunization BC and other shingles related sites (see list of sites below), as many as one in five patients, especially those over 70, will go on to develop PHN or post herpetic neuralgia, the dreaded, nerve damage issue. PHN can be excruciating. The rash is gone but the pain lingers, intensified, sending the brain mixed messages from the damaged nerves. It can burn and jab and stab relentlessly. Treatment is difficult. There are creams that numb the pain, creams that are rubbed into the skin to trick the pain neurons to the brain. There are patches that do the same. Then there are the drugs, the anti-depressants, the anti-convulsants, the opiates. Heavy duty stuff for heavy duty pain! Sometimes, this pain is searing and uncontrollable and though typically, it does subside over time, a month, two months, occasionally longer, it can be agonizing for the duration. It is a terrible syndrome, one you would not wish on anyone.

All of this being said, shingles and its horrible aftermath, PHN, are not to be taken lightly. They can be life changing. Then, why do some people seem so uninformed and indifferent? Why would anyone subject him or herself to such agony? Why would anyone not consider a vaccine that according to medical reports has such good results? It is not a guarantee that one will not get shingles, but it offers some assurance that a bout would be less severe. People may be afraid of vaccines in general, dismissing them as unnecessary and unproven. They have their reasons. And true, the cost of the Shingrix vaccine is expensive at $150-plus for each of the two required doses but it is worth it. Some health plans cover this vaccine, though MSP, our publically funded plan does not. Perhaps it should be covered for those over 60? Would that make a difference? Who knows? Ultimately, people have to make their own decisions, but maintaining good health, especially as we age is so important. We must be pro-active. Getting a shingles vaccine is pro-active.

What triggers an outbreak of shingles is still a bit of a mystery. The misery that shingles presents is not. Be smart. Get vaccinated. Keep that insidious herpes zoster virus at bay.

See your family doctor or a pharmacist for more information regarding the shingles vaccine. And, for other shingles/PHN related material check out the following sites:

BC Centre for Disease Control/Immunize BC

Canada’s Immunization Guide

Shingles Vaccine HealthLinkBC file

S.L. McKenna

Cowichan Bay


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