Shingles is a painful, blistering skin rash that can last up to several weeks. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and can occur at any time and without any warning. The risk of developing shingles increases with age.
The chickenpox virus that we get as children, also known as the herpes varicella-zoster virus or simply the zoster virus, stays in our nervous system in an inactive state, even after our chickenpox are long gone. In some people, the virus stays inactive or dormant forever because our immune system keeps it in check. For others, however, the zoster virus can become reactivated causing shingles. It is worth mentioning that if this virus becomes active again, it will only ever cause shingles, and never chickenpox.
Once active, the virus travels down the nerve which is the reason that shingles can be very painful. Some individuals may continue to experience chronic nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia or PHN) well after the blisters have dried up. It is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible since getting an antiviral before blistering can reduce the pain and possibly the chance of having chronic nerve pain. This is the most common complication of shingles and can severely impact the quality of life for elderly people as treatment options are not necessarily very effective.
The shingles vaccine is a one-time vaccination that can prevent shingles and chronic nerve pain. Side-effects that have been associated with the vaccine are redness, soreness, and pain at the injection site. Some people may even develop a headache.
Should you get the shingles vaccine? While the vaccine is approved by Health Canada for use in anyone 50 years of age and older, the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations recommends the vaccine for people age 60 and older. Since the risk of shingles increases with age, this is the group that will benefit from it the most. Even people who haven’t had chickenpox or have already had shingles should be vaccinated.
Who shouldn’t get the vaccine? It may not be appropriate for people with weakened immune systems, so if you take medication or have an illness that affects your immune system be sure to discuss shingles vaccination with your physician.
Is the vaccine covered? For provincial plans, it is up to each province to determine whether to fund the shingles vaccine. Currently only Ontario provides coverage and only for Ontarians age 65 to 70. You could be covered by GSC for the vaccine depending on your drug plan. Many GSC plans cover the vaccine for plan members age 50 and older (except for residents of Ontario where GSC covers only plan members age 50-64 or 71 and older).
To find out if the vaccination is covered by your GSC plan, your best bet is to call our Customer Service Centre toll free at 1-888-711-1119 and a representative will be able to assist you!