Skip to content

Shingles: Spot the Symptoms

Canadian NHL hockey legend and Hall of Fame member, Denis Savard once said he was “laid up for a month” and the pain was “unbearable” when he experienced shingles.

Canadian NHL hockey legend and Hall of Fame member, Denis Savard once said he was “laid up for a month” and the pain was “unbearable” when he experienced shingles. From a man who played professional hockey, this illustrates the intense suffering brought on by the illness.

What is shingles? This disease is a very painful skin rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus. As you age, your immune system weakens and the virus can be activated and travel from nerve cell to nerve cell causing a painful blistering rash. Caused by the chickenpox virus, which can lie dormant in the body for years, shingles can erupt suddenly. If you had chickenpox as a child, chances are you carry this virus in your body ‘s nerve cells. According to the Canadian National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), 90 per cent of Canadians who have had chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles. The odds of developing the disease is one in three if you are 60 and over but the rate increases by twice that amount if you are 85 or older. The first sign that you have developed shingles is pain, burning, itching, or tingling on a part of your body. You may experience chills and fever; then you develop reddish fluid-filled blisters on the chest, back or stomach, but can be located on the neck or face.

The usual treatment for shingles is an antiviral medication which should be taken within the first 72 hours of the onset of the symptoms, so a visit to your healthcare provider is essential. This antiviral medication can shorten the amount of time you experience the symptoms and thereby shorten the pain. It may even prevent complications such as further nerve damage. For relief you may apply cool compresses and calamine lotion to the area and take over-the-counter pain medication.

The most common major complication (although if you have shingles, the rash and pain will seem major) is the risk of developing further nerve damage, referred to as Post-herpetic Neuralgia (PHN.) After the rash heals, this condition can endure for weeks, months or even years. Complications include neurological difficulties, vision loss and joint pain. Outbreaks on the face near the eye can cause blindness if the cornea is affected. Bacterial infections from scratching can lead to scarring. The pain, the loss of sleep, and the difficulties of daily activities can cause depression. People with an immune deficiency are susceptible to develop pneumonia.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, risk factors include having had chickenpox as a child, having a weakened immune system, taking medications such as corticosteroids that weaken the immune system, radiation treatment and having cancer, especially Hodgkin's Disease or lymphoma. Having HIV/AIDS also puts you at risk. For seniors, prevention can be key to avoiding the pain of this blistering rash. The preventative vaccination of Zostavax has been shown to reduce your chances of developing shingles up to 12 times, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Generic drugs, Acyclovir, Valacyclovir, and Famciclovir, are available. Immunize Canada, a non- governmental coalition of professional, health, and consumer sectors, recommends immunization for the prevention of herpes zoster (shingles) and the complications that could arise. To determine if you are a candidate for this vaccine, consult your doctor.