Shingles: The Nasty Relative of Chickenpox

I was far too young when I had chickenpox to remember it. My own children, who are now adults in their twenties, had chickenpox at a young age too. My son caught it from another child in kindergarten. He had a mild case with only a few itchy red spots. My daughter, just 8 months old, caught it from her brother. She had hundreds of fluid-filled blisters across her chest and abdomen and was more sickly than her brother had been.

If you think a blistered, itchy toddler sounds bad, you should hear from the stories from folks who’ve had shingles. Shingles is what happens when the chickenpox virus resurfaces years later. If you’ve had chickenpox, you could get shingles.

The first symptoms of shingles are usually itching, tingling and burning pain on the head or torso. Then, as in chickenpox, a rash appears, usually on one side of your face or torso. Fluid-filled blisters form next and then scab over. Other symptoms may include headache and sensitivity to light. Shingles typically lasts for a few weeks.

However, serious complications can make shingles feel like the nasty, debilitating relative of chickenpox. The most common complication of shingles is nerve pain, which can be mild or severe, and may last months or even years after the blisters are gone. In addition to making daily activities difficult, shingles can have serious consequences such as nerve damage and vision loss if it affects the eye.

There’s no cure for shingles. Antiviral drugs may help it go away faster and make it less severe. Painkillers, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion and wet compresses can reduce discomfort and itching.

Experts estimate that up to one-third of those of us who had chickenpox will get shingles in our lifetime. But here’s the worst part: just because you’ve had shingles once doesn’t mean you can’t get it again.

There is something you can do to lessen the chance of getting shingles, and that’s getting the shingles vaccine. Called Zostavax, the vaccine is recommended for the age group most likely to get shingles – adults 60 and older. If you’re between 65 and 70 years old, the vaccine is now available at no cost to you. If you’re outside this age group, you can still get the vaccine from your doctor or at Public Health (the cost of the vaccine is approximately $200).

If you’ve had chickenpox, consider getting the shingles vaccine. Not only will it reduce your chance of getting shingles, it will also reduce the risk of lingering nerve pain. For more information about when to get the vaccine, talk to your family doctor or contact Public Health at 1-800-265-7293.

These days, most children have been vaccinated against chickenpox. Whereas catching chickenpox at school used to be commonplace, as in the case of my kindergarten-aged son, it’s an uncommon occurrence today. Not only has the chickenpox vaccine significantly reduced the number of cases of chickenpox, it will reduce the risk of shingles in future generations.

Have you had shingles, or know someone who has? Please share your story below!