A Real Pain: Shingles And How You Can Avoid It
Patient Perspective When Elaine Gareau, 66, first felt pain in her upper left side she figured it was just her arthritis acting up, but after a few days, she knew something was wrong.
The pain was so intense that everything felt uncomfortable. She couldn’t sit, stand or settle herself and sleeping was nearly impossible.
“It was so constant and so severe. I felt like I couldn’t take a breath,” says the Ontario woman. “I’ve had broken bones, I have arthritis, and I’ve had a knee replacement, but nothing comes close to this.”
Gareau went to her local healthcare provider but after a series of tests, they were no closer to figuring out the source of her pain.
A few weeks later, a red bump showed up on her back. It was the summer and Gareau had recently been to an outdoor event, so she thought it was a mosquito bite — but upon inspection, her husband disagreed. This looked different.
Her healthcare provider took one look at the lesion on her back and recognized it as a characteristic sign of the herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles.
What is shingles?
Shingles results from the same virus responsible for the chicken pox. While the visible symptoms of chicken pox disappear with time, the varicella zoster virus responsible for the disease stays on the nerve roots and can reactivate later in life as shingles. The reactivated virus causes shooting pain and a red, blistering rash that often appears in a strip along one side of the body.
For Gareau, the patch on her back grew, reaching around her body just under her chest. She says the discomfort was similar to when she broke out in full-body hives after reacting to laundry detergent, but with the addition of severe pain.
“It was so constant and so severe. I felt like I couldn’t take a breath. I’ve had broken bones, I have arthritis, and I’ve had a knee replacement,but nothing comes close to this."
Approximately 90 percent of Canadians have had chicken pox, including Gareau, and are therefore at risk for developing shingles. The disease typically affects people 60 years and older or those with a weakened immune system. In Canada, 130,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
A shot at protection
Recent studies indicate that in the general population, there is a 30 percent chance of getting shingles, but for those who don’t want to take the risk, there is now a preventative vaccine.
The shingles injection, available in Canada since 2008, is approved for anyone over the age of 50. The vaccine has been proven to reduce the risk of developing shingles by 70 percent for patients in their 50s, and 51 percent for those over the age of 60.
There is no way to predict who will get shingles or when it will flare up, so experts recommend that patients over the age of 50 speak to their physician about the vaccine. Once symptoms of shingles appear, it is too late to benefit from the vaccination.
Gareau had learned of the vaccine when her husband got a mild case of shingles a few years prior. At that time, she says that she hadn’t heard of many shingles cases so she figured that the condition wasn’t something she needed to worry about. She never received the injection.
Avoiding long-term pain
While some patients can clear their symptoms in a few weeks, shingles can cause nerve damage, known as post-herpetic neuralgia, which results in long-term pain.
After several weeks in pain and off work, Gareau’s shingles were successfully cleared with antiviral medication. However, she says that a year later, she still feels the pain on her back when she is sitting on a wooden bench in church.
Gareau plans on speaking to her doctor about the vaccine and recommends that other Canadians do the same. If the injection will help others reduce the risk of experiencing what she went through, she says it’s worth a conversation.