Shingles signs, symptoms & risks: 90% of Canadians over 50 are 'unaware' 1 in 3 people will develop the 'painful' virus

The pain level of shingles can vary but should not be underestimated by any means — and not considered the "adult chicken pox."

A new survey reports Canadians underestimate their risk of developing shingles. (Image via Canva)
A new survey reports Canadians underestimate their risk of developing shingles. (Image via Canva)

Canadians "greatly underestimate" their risk of developing shingles.

According to a national Leger survey, 49 per cent of Canadians aged 50 and older are "unaware" that their risk of developing the painful viral infection increases with age. Less than 10 per cent of people surveyed were aware that 1 in 3 Canadians over 50 will develop shingles in their lifetime.

Additionally, 19 per cent of respondents believe shingles are "harmless" and a "rash with no long-term effects" instead of a painful, blistering rash that can impact your quality of life.

"Shingles is a prevalent, viral infection impacting a large portion of our older Canadian demographic and the findings of the survey are troubling," says Marni Freeman, Country Medical Director, GSK Canada in a press release. "With Canadians aged 50 and older adding-up to over 15 million and representing almost 40 per cent of the population, the need for improved shingles awareness among older adults is critical to help limit the burden of this disease and its potential complications on individuals, their family and caregivers, as well as our healthcare system."

According to Health Canada, approximately 130,000 new cases of shingles are diagnosed each year, and 1 in 3 Canadians will experience shingles at some point in their lifetime.

So, what exactly is shingles? Read on to find out more.

What is shingles, and how does it compare to chicken pox?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. If you've ever had the chicken pox, the virus remains inactive in your body long after you've healed.

A painful rash that turns into blisters occur during a shingles flare-up. (Image via Getty Images)
A painful rash that turns into blisters occur during a shingles flare-up. (Image via Getty Images)

As you age, the virus can reactivate, presenting as shingles — a band of raised red dots that eventually develop into fluid-filled blisters. These bands of shingles can occur anywhere on the body, but most often appear on the torso, trunk or face.

The pain level of shingles can vary but should not be underestimated by any means — and not considered the "adult chicken pox."

In a 2018 interview with Yahoo Canada, Dennis Bowden, who developed shingles at 39, called the virus "the worst pain" they've ever experienced. Bowden compared the pain to an "intense electric shock" and said his initial outbreak that occurred on his jaw felt like a "jolt of intense pain."

What are the signs and symptoms of shingles?

Aside from the tingling, itchy skin or burning that can occur a few days before a shingles outbreak, people experience different symptoms depending on where their band of shingles are located.

For example, if you develop shingles on your face, facial paralysis, hearing loss or even blindness can occur. In some rare instances, the brain can become inflamed, which can be potentially fatal. Experts recommend visiting your doctor or an urgent care clinic if you develop blisters on your face to help prevent any permanent damage to your eyesight.

Shingles (herpes zoster) rash. (Image via Getty Images)
Shingles (herpes zoster) rash. (Image via Getty Images)

Aside from the blisters that tend to scab over within a few days, people with shingles can experience nausea, fever, chills, vomiting, headache and sensitivity to light.

In a 2018 interview, Dr. John Murray, an emergency physician in Ontario and B.C., told Yahoo Canada that one of the common complications of shingles is a secondary infection.

"Any time there’s a break in your skin, you can get a secondary bacterial infection," he explained at the time. "People can get really sick—febrile and needing intravenous antibiotics.”

What triggers a shingles flare-up?

While some people may only experience shingles once, others may experience multiple shingles outbreaks over the course of their lifetime.

According to experts, certain medications, a compromised immune system or stress can all contribute to a shingles flare-up.

"I’ve had patients with shingles who are older and who have had a recent death in family, the loss of a spouse; they’re under emotional or psychological stress,” Dr. Michael Curry, a Vancouver-based medical doctor told Yahoo Canada in 2018. “I’ve seen that many times. However it [shingles] begins we don’t fully understand, but we know that emotional or psychological stress has an impact on the physical health of the body as well."

How is shingles treated?

Although a shingles outbreak can last from 3-5 weeks, your doctor can prescribe an anti-viral medication that can help shorten the length of your illness. These anti-viral medications work best when taken at the first sign of outbreak, and can help prevent any long-term side effects of the virus, like long-term nerve pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia.

Aside from anti-virals, your doctor may prescribe pain medication or lotions to help ease the shingles rash itself.

Shingles infographic (Image via Getty Images)
Shingles infographic (Image via Getty Images)

Is shingles contagious?

Leger's recent survey findings show that a vast majority of Canadians are unaware of how shingles is transmitted. The survey found that 64 per cent of people surveyed believe shingles is "a little, somewhat, or very contagious." Forty-one per cent of people believe that you can "catch shingles" from someone with shingles while 33 per cent believe you can catch shingles from someone with chicken pox.

Shingles (herpes zoster) is not contagious, but the virus that causes it, varicella-zoster, can be. Although the risk of transmission is low, a person can become infected with the varicella-zoster virus by making direct contact with the fluid inside a shingles blister.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the varicella-zoster virus can be transmitted from a person with shingles to a person who hasn't had chicken pox before or has never had the chicken pox vaccine. If they become infected with the varicella-zoster virus, they'll develop the chicken pox — not shingles.

Once they then overcome chicken pox, the varicella-zoster virus will remain inactive in their bodies, which means they could later develop shingles when the virus is "reactivated" due to age, stress, compromised immune system or certain medications.

Keeping your shingles rash covered and frequently washing your hands can help prevent transmission of the varicella-zoster virus.

Can you prevent shingles?

In Canada, there is currently only one approved shingles vaccines, Shingrix. Health Canada recommends that individuals over the age of 50 be vaccinated against shingles, even if they've experienced a shingles flare-up before.

You should talk to your healthcare provider about which vaccine is right for you based on your personal medical history.

With files from Gail Johnson.

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