Shingles And Chickenpox Hit The News Again This Week
Shingles is a painful viral infection and can occur in anyone who has at one time had chickenpox. Over half of all cases of shingles affect people over 60 years old. Chickenpox, meanwhile, is a very common, very contagious and usually mild illness in children. The case of two year old Jasper Allen has recently raised the question of whether a routine vaccine should be made available to all children, as he suffered a particularly serious attack.
In the case of shingles, there is a vaccine which is available on the NHS to certain people in their 70s. If you’re aged 70 or 78 your current vaccination period will soon be coming to an end, but there’s still time for you to get immunised. Here’s what you need to know about shingles and why you should get the vaccine.
What is Shingles?
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is an infection of a nerve and the skin around it. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. It results in a painful rash and itchy blisters, usually affecting a specific area on one side of the body. In some cases shingles may cause some early symptoms that develop a few days before the painful rash first appears. These early symptoms can include:
- a headache
- itchiness, burning, tingling or numbness of the skin in the affected area
- a feeling of being generally unwell
- a high temperature
An episode of shingles usually lasts between two to four weeks. The chest and abdomen are most commonly affected but the condition can also affect any of the upper body or face.
Many people with shingles wonder if they are contagious. While the varicella zoster virus can be spread to those who have not had chickenpox, shingles itself cannot. This transmission, which only occurs through direct contact with blisters, would cause chickenpox in someone who has never been infected with the virus. There is no risk of viral transmission before the blisters appear or after they have crusted over.
Most people have chickenpox during their childhood, and after the illness is gone, the virus remains dormant in the nervous system. In some cases, the virus can become reactivated later in life and this is what causes shingles. It is not known why this reactivation happens, but it is thought to be the result of lowered immunity.
Around 9 in 10 adults have had chickenpox at some point, which means most people are potentially at risk of shingles. It is estimated that one in every four people will have at least one episode of shingles during their life.
Although there is no cure, treatment is available to relieve the symptoms and can include:
- painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or codeine
- antiviral medication to stop the virus multiplying
- covering the rash with clothing or a non stick dressing to reduce the risk of infecting other people
- calamine lotion to sooth and cool the skin and relieve the itching
- a cold compress to soothe the skin and keep the blisters clean
Why Older People Should Get the Shingles Vaccine
The NHS offers a vaccine to prevent shingles to those aged 70 or 78. If you’re one of these ages, you should seriously consider getting this vaccine.
The vaccine is offered to older people because they are most at risk of developing shingles. This is because age may have weakened your immune system. You may also have lowered immunity if you’re taking certain medications.
Shingles is also more dangerous for older people. In over-70s, it usually lasts for longer and is more painful. In one in 1000 cases, the condition is fatal.
Having the vaccine is a quick and easy way to protect yourself from this painful and potentially dangerous illness. It will significantly reduce your risk of getting shingles, and in the unlikely event that you do go on to develop the condition, your symptoms should be milder. Even if you’ve had shingles before, it’s worth getting the vaccine, which will boost your immunity against further attacks. Unlike the flu jab, you only need to have the shingles jab once.
The Current Vaccination Programme
You become eligible to have the vaccine free on the NHS on the first day of September after you’ve turned 70. If you turned 70 or 78 last year before September you remain eligible until the last day of August this year, so there’s still time to get yourself immunised. The NHS say that immunisations are staggered this way because it would be impractical to vaccinate everyone in their 70s in a single year. The vaccine is not offered to those aged 80 or above because it is less effective at this age.
The shingles jab is also available privately for anyone over the age of 50, but is expensive. If you choose to be immunised privately, you can expect to pay between £100 and £200. You can discuss the safety of getting the vaccine with your GP, but you may need to visit a private clinic to arrange having the immunisation.