If you are a senior, odds are you have heard of shingles. Perhaps a friend or family member has suffered this painful, blistering rash – about 50 percent of those affected are over age 60. Luckily, we have a vaccine to help us avoid developing shingles.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease:

What is shingles?

Shingles (Herpes Zoster) is caused by reactivation of the varicella zoster virus, which causes the chicken pox that many of us had as children.

You may feel unwell or have some itching or tingling of the skin before a rash of open, oozing blisters emerges, often along one side of the torso or more rarely, on the face. If shingles develop on the face, this requires immediate medical attention as your eyes can be irreversibly damaged if they are affected. The rash lasts for 10 to15 days.

Why get vaccinated for shingles?

The vaccine is generally recommended for people over age 60, or after age 50 for some individuals, as recommended by your physician.

The risk of shingles is increased in people with illnesses that interfere with the function of the immune system such as some cancers and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as well as in those who are taking medications that suppress the immune system (e.g. steroids). Being under a lot of stress can also trigger shingles.

Shingles can have several potentially serious complications. Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common and the risk for PHN increases as we age — it affects one out of every six people over 60 who get shingles.

This involves persistent, chronic nerve pain in the areas originally affected, long after the blisters disappear. PHN can have severe effects on quality of life and can be difficult to treat.

How will getting vaccinated help?

The Shingles vaccine currently available reduces your risk of getting shingles by 50 percent and helps reduce symptom severity if the rash does develop. Having the shingles vaccine also reduces your risk of complications like post herpetic neuralgia (PHN) by two-thirds. 

It’s important to treat shingles immediately if they develop. If taken early in the course of the illness, treatment with antiviral medications may reduce the length and severity of shingles, and the risk of developing PHN.

You can have the shingles vaccine when you receive the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against some forms of pneumonia, which is a concern for many seniors, especially those living in a retirement residence. Talk to your doctor about what immunizations you may need and visit Vaccines411.ca for vaccine information and to find the vaccinating clinic nearest you.

This information should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your doctor. There may be variations in treatment that your physician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.