Health expert tells why Aussies must learn more about shingles

You hear the word shingles and what are your thoughts? Do you think it’s a mildly irritating condition?

You’re not alone if you do. A survey found that most people had limited knowledge of the condition, but a health expert wants people to wake up to the potentially debilitating outcomes of developing shingles.

A leading expert in geriatric medicine, Associate Professor Michael Woodward, is on a mission to raise awareness about how painful and incapacitating shingles can be.

“As we get older, especially when we reach 50, we’re more likely to become unwell. The last thing we need is to have the burden of shingles on top of other health challenges,” he said. 

Common misconceptions about shingles

New consumer research, commissioned by GSK Australia, found considerable knowledge gaps about shingles, including the following misconceptions:

  • that leading a healthy lifestyle resulted in a low risk of shingles
  • over a third of survey respondents believed that a history of chickenpox means they were unlikely to be at risk of developing shingles in their lifetime
  • nearly 45 per cent of participants did not consider shingles would negatively impact their quality of life if they were to get it
  • 33 per cent of respondents who were aware of the risk of shingles, failed to recognise pain, burning, numbness or tingling on part of the body as symptoms.

The survey also found participants didn’t think shingles would have much of an impact on their lives.

However, Assoc. Prof. Woodward said contracting shingles could have a knock-on effect on the whole family. 

“It is also common these days for many Australians over 50, who are working part-time or retired, to be playing a role in the care of their grandchildren,” he said.

“Developing shingles means grandparents wouldn’t be in a position to help, not just for the duration of the disease but potentially for a longer period of time if they were to develop complications. And that can impact the whole family.”

Who carries the virus?

About one in three people will develop shingles and almost all adults over 50 carry the inactive virus. 

Shingles comes with the risk of complications including post-herpetic neuralgia, which involves nerve pain that can last for months or even years.

So what exactly is shingles?

Shingles is triggered by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, usually during adulthood. Those who have had chickenpox already carry the virus that causes shingles.

According to BetterHealth, symptoms include pain and blistering, which often appears on one side of the face or body, fatigue, headaches and tender, painful skin.

Vaccine available

The virus responsible for shingles can be spread to a person who has not had chickenpox or vaccinations when a person comes into contact with the fluid contained in the blisters, either directly or indirectly.

A vaccine is available for people aged over 50 and a free vaccine is available for those aged 70 to 79.

Antiviral medications can help ease the pain and shorten an attack. They work best within 24 hours of the onset of a rash, so consult your doctor as soon as you can if you think you have developed shingles.

If you have developed shingles, you should keep the rash dry and clean, cover it if possible to avoid spreading the virus and try not to scratch the affected area.

You can also wear loose natural fibres, use ice packs to help with the discomfort and do not share towels, play contact sports or go swimming.

Have you ever had shingles? Were you surprised at the effects? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Call for urgent action to help eczema sufferers

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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  1. I always thought that shingles was merely a temporary rash, with little pain. Until I had it when I was in my 70’s. Not realising the pimples on my head were shingles it took me 2 or 3 days to visit my doctor, who immediately sent me for a swab to the local hospital. Fortunately my wife was with me and she was told by my doctor to drive me to the hospital. After it was confirmed and as we left the hospital, I collapsed on the pavement.
    I spent several days at home in bed unable to get up and my wife said “I never want to see you looking so shockingly ill again”. I only got over it after about 4 weeks and was free of the virus by then which enabled us to go on a cruise we had booked. We could have lost that cruise.
    I have now had a shingles vaccination, which doesn’t guarantee you won’t get shingles for the first time or again, but lessens the effects. There is now a stronger vaccination, that I believe is not free, but I will have it soon. Get the vaccination as soon as you can- especially if you are over 50- even if you have to pay-it ‘s worth every cent, For many months after, I would get a sudden sharp stab in the head- didn’t last, but was extremely painful.

  2. I wouldn’t wish shingles on to my worst enemy – Never have I had such excruciating pain before as I did with this dreaded infliction. I was thirty three at the time and thought the pain was worse than going through labour (which I thought at the time was probably the worst pain I would ever experience). I presented to my Dr. convinced that I had been bitten by a red back spider. I quickly found that it was shingles. At that time (34 years ago) there was very little offered to help with the pain or neuropathic consequences that followed. I remember using crushed dissolvable Asprin mixed to a paste and applied to the area. I also applied Capsaicin cream at night-time, however the pain lingered for a long time, and I felt mentally exhausted. For many years after I would find the neuralgia would return in varying degrees every time I was run down or unwell (it almost served as a pre warning that something wasn’t right). Don’t ever pass shingles off as a minor concern, do the right thing by yourself and have the vaccination. You deserve to enjoy your best life! Any why shouldn’t you?

  3. I am 72 years old and got shingles in my leg in the 1st week of November 2022 and still haven’t recovered completely. The pain was excruciating even before the rash appeared 7 days later. By the time the rash appeared I couldn’t stand or walk and was taken to hospital by ambulance and spent 3 nights in hospital. I was given anti-virals the afternoon I was admitted & was put on painkillers including Lyrica. My rash wasn’t all that widespread or itchy but the pain was terrible and my leg was weak and virtually useless. I was tired most of the time and lost 4 kgs in 4 weeks. Physiotherapy started in hospital and continued once or twice a week for 15 weeks. I couldn’t stand or walk without a disability walker for 3 months and then elbow crutches for several weeks. By early-mid January I had to resort to seeing a pain specialist to help manage the pain because it kept me awake at night. I couldn’t drive, cook, do household chores, shower without a lot of difficulty and a disability chair in the shower and one just outside the shower as well as the walker close by for extra support. I couldn’t get outside the house because of the 8 steps at the back door and one step at the front door. The physiotherapist eventually got me to the stage where I could use the one step at the front door as long as someone was with me and the walker was right next to the step. Since February I have been going to the gym to build on the physiotherapy and doing hydrotherapy and gradually started going for walks using Nordic walking poles for support on uneven ground (I was a Nordic pole walker before shingles and had been in training to do the Overland Track in Tasmania in April but had to cancel that). I am much stronger now and I walk a lot but going up and down hills is still tricky and so are stairs. I have numbness in patches on my shins and all around my knee. It feels prickly most of the time and I still get lightening strikes in my nerves every now and then. My average normal walking speed used to be 4.6 kph but it’s now 3.6-3.8 kph depending on the day. I can’t re-join my Nordica walking group yet because I need to be able to walk at 6-8 kph. I will be getting the Shingrex vaccine at the beginning of November this year because I never, ever want to have shingles again.

  4. People may not like hearing this but . . . . . I got shingles about 3 years ago. Very obvious rash & extremely itchy for a couple of days. Doctor diagnosed shingles & gave me medication which I didn’t take. Naturopath told me to eat pumpkin every day which i did for about 2 weeks. Rash remained for about a week or so but I suffered absolutely no pain at all. From talking to others, apparently I am very lucky. This is the part people may not like . . . . I believe the covid vaccine caused the shingle virus to activate. I know too many people who got shingles after being vaccinated. 🙁

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