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Facts About...

Shingles


What is it?

Shingles (herpes-zoster) is an infection caused by a virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. It occurs only in people who have been exposed or infected with chickenpox in the past. The virus stays in the body and may cause shingles later in life. Most people who have shingles have only one episode of the disease in their lifetime. Those with a low immune system may have repeated attacks. Shingles occurs more often in older adults.

How is it spread?

Contact with someone who has shingles may cause chickenpox in another who has not had chickenpox before. It is spread from person to person by direct contact with lesions, and indirectly by articles freshly soiled by discharge from lesions. Lesions should be covered to avoid spread. Shingles in one person cannot cause shingles in another person.

What do I look for?

The first sign of shingles is often pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will develop, followed by a rash that appears as a band or patch of raised bumps on one side of the body. The rash then develops into small, fluid-filled blisters, which contain the virus and are contagious.

How is it treated?

Shingles can often be treated with an anti-viral medicine prescribed by a health care provider. This medicine can improve healing time, and reduce the number of new blisters, pain, and the length of time that it is contagious. It may also help reduce pain that remains after the rash has gone. Other medications may also be given by a health care provider to help relieve that type of pain.

Shingles usually clears on its own within a few weeks. Over-the-counter pain relievers may also help with pain.

How can I protect myself?

  • If you have had chickenpox in the past, stay healthy and maintain a strong immune system (eat healthy, exercise, get enough rest and sleep) which can decrease the chance of getting shingles.
  • Keep the blisters clean and covered to keep the virus from spreading to others.
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water or use hand sanitizer when hands are not visibly dirty.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after touching the affected area.
  • If the fluid in the blisters becomes cloudy and the skin around the blisters becomes red, hot, or swollen, this may be a sign of a worse infection and may need antibiotics. See your doctor/health care provider.
  • If the blisters are on your face, especially the tip of your nose, or around your eye, you should see a doctor/health care provider, as the virus could cause damage to the eye.
  • Ask your doctor/health care provider about a vaccine called “Zostavax” which is available in Canada for cost to healthy persons over the age of 60 to prevent shingles.

August 2014