Shingles may be sleeping by Dr Sally Hoskins

Shingles or Herpes Zoster refers to a viral infection (Varicella-zoster virus) causing a painful rash in a band of skin supplied by one or more nerves. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox; anyone who has had chickenpox in the past can develop shingles. The virus remains latent (sleeping) in the nerves and can cause shingles for no apparent reason or if you are stressed or unwell.

About 1 in 5 people will get shingles in their life and 1 in 50 get it more than once. With Shingles the pain can vary in type and severity and a few days later the rash appears as red blotches that change into blisters then heal. Some people feel feverish and unwell. An episode of shingles lasts for 2-4 weeks.

Shingles can also cause ongoing nerve pain (post-herpetic neuralgia) for years later. This is worse if you are older when you get shingles. The risk of developing shingles increases with advancing age from the age of 50 years (20 % of cases occur in those aged 50-59, 50% of cases occur in over 60 year olds).

A vaccine (Zostavax), for over 50 year olds, has been developed which has some protection against shingles (the effect is highest 64% between ages 60-69, 41% in ages 70-79 yrs and 18% in over 80 yrs). It is not funded as yet. A single dose of the vaccine is likely to give protection against shingles for at least 7 years.

You can receive the vaccine regardless of whether you have had chickenpox before and even if you have had shingles before. After a recent episode of shingles you should have natural immunity for 1-2 years. The vaccine is well tolerated and does not cause shingles. Ask your Health Centre if you would like the vaccine.

Thanks to information from The Immunisation Advisory Centre, at The University of Auckland