3 questions you might have about the shingles virus

Shingles is a painful rash that is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. About one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime, and the likelihood increases with age, mainly impacting adults older than 50, and in adults with a weakened immune system due to medications or health conditions. Below are the answers to three common questions about shingles.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of shingles can include burning or shooting pain, tingling or itching, chills, fever, headaches, upset stomach and rashes or blisters that usually develop on one side of the body and can last for two to four weeks. The pain and burning sensations can be intense and typically start before the rash, however, even when the rash is gone, some people experience pain for months, or even years.

If shingles affects a facial nerve, you can feel pain, muscle weakness and a rash on various parts of your face. Shingles on the face can also involve the eyes, which is serious because it can cause scarring and blindness.

About 10 to 18 per cent of people with shingles develop chronic pain called postherpetic neuralgia. This ongoing condition is often described as burning or stabbing pain that can impact daily activities.

Is there any way to prevent it?
Once you’ve had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in your body and can reactivate later in life, causing shingles. Ninety per cent of Canadian adults over 50 have already had chickenpox and are carrying the virus. For this reason, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that adults over 50 years of age get the shingles vaccine.

Is it contagious?
You can’t catch shingles from other people; you only get shingles from a reactivation of your own chickenpox infection from the past. But, if you’ve never had chickenpox or were not vaccinated against it in childhood, be careful around someone who has been diagnosed with shingles as you could get chickenpox through direct contact with fluid from the shingles blisters. A person diagnosed with shingles remains contagious until the blistering rash crusts over.

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