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PHARM REPORT: Don’t get SHINGLEd out

Bridgetown-based pharmacist Heather O’Donnell shares some need-to-know info about shingles in the latest Pharm Report column.
Bridgetown-based pharmacist Heather O’Donnell shares some need-to-know info about shingles in the latest Pharm Report column. - Contributed

Who knew that your childhood battle with chickenpox could come back to haunt you decades after you thought the virus was gone?

And I’m not talking about that scar on your face from the scab you picked even though your mother told you not to.

After you have had the chickenpox, the virus can stay dormant in your body for many years. With age, stress, or the development of certain medical conditions, your immunity may decrease, giving the virus the opportunity to re-emerge in the form of shingles.

Shingles often presents as a blistery rash that burns, or is painful.  The rash typically is on one side of the body, or in a line, since it follows a single nerve pathway. The good news is, unlike chickenpox, shingles is not contagious.  However, if you have never had chickenpox before, you can get chickenpox from someone who has shingles because it is the same virus.

The word “postherpetic neuralgia” will make most shingles-sufferers cringe, and not because it’s hard to say and spell, but because it is the terminology used for the burning nerve pain that can last for months after the shingles rash has disappeared.  This pain is the reason that many people will pay the seemingly hefty price to purchase one of the vaccines.

Currently, there are two vaccines available in Canada for shingles prevention: Zostavax and Shingrix.  Zostavax was the first one available and is given as a single injection into the skin at the back of your arm.  It reduces your chances of getting shingles by about 50 per cent and it costs $225.  

The newest vaccine is Shingirx and it is injected into the muscle of your arm.  It is a series of two injections, given two to six months apart. Shingrix reduces the incidence of shingles by about 90 per cent.  The cost for the series is just over $300.

Both doctors and pharmacists can prescribe and administer both of these vaccines, although fees will sometimes apply depending on where you go.

The bad news is that neither vaccine is currently covered by Pharmacare, the provincial drug plan.  However, if you have a private plan, it is worth checking to see if it is a listed benefit.

The other downside is that efficacy beyond four years is still being investigated. A booster may be necessary down the road to re-energize your immunity.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to get the vaccination, and for the sake of your health in general, be mindful to do the things that you can to keep your immune system from being compromised.

Eat a well-balanced diet, incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine, practice good sleep habits, and do things to relax your mind and give you a break from the stresses in your life.

Heather O’Donnell, originally from Middleton, is a pharmacist at Pharmasave in Bridgetown.

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