Sep 29, 2023

Misconceptions about shingles still rife among older people

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Those who have had chickenpox already carry the virus that causes shingles. [Source: EnergyFM]

Key points:

  • Shingles is a painful and potentially debilitating condition triggered by the reactivation of the chicken pox virus, usually during adulthood
  • Shingles also comes with the risk of post-disease complications like post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which can result in persistent nerve pain that can last for months or years after the initial shingles rash resolves
  • The incidence of PHN increases with age, ranging from approximately 10% in people aged 50 to 59 years old to up to 20% in those aged over 80 year

With nearly nine million Australians now aged over 50, healthcare professionals are calling for older people to educate themselves and their loved ones about the likelihood of being affected by shingles.

New consumer research commissioned by GSK Australia has cast a spotlight on the lack of awareness surrounding shingles. A leading expert in geriatric medicine, Associate Professor Michael Woodward, encourages families to have open conversations with their loved ones and raise awareness about how painful and debilitating shingles can be.

The survey uncovered widespread misconceptions and knowledge gaps among surveyed participants, including:

  • The perception is that leading a healthy lifestyle results in a low risk of shingles
  • Over a third of survey respondents who do not feel at risk believe that a history of chickenpox means they are unlikely to be at risk of developing shingles in their lifetime
  • Nearly 45% of participants do not consider shingles would negatively impact their quality of life if they were to get it
  • 33% of respondents who were aware of the risk of shingles fail to recognise pain, burning, numbness or tingling on one part of the body as symptoms

When it comes to shingles, concerningly, many people have a natural tendency to believe it “won’t happen to me.”  

New South Wales resident Karin Cahill, 59, woke up one morning with muscle pain at the top of her ribs, on her back but assumed it was a muscle strain from a gym session the night before. Her condition worsened accompanied by a rash that was itchy, incredibly painful and began to blister – she had shingles. 

When Karin had shingles, she didn’t have the energy to do anything, even doing a load of washing was exhausting. It hurt to lie on the rash and her body ached all the time.

Karin Cahill_headshot
Karin had heard of a shingles vaccination; however, she didn’t think she would ever get shingles. [Source: Supplied]

Recovery took about 12 weeks, and even when the rash had gone, she could still see a mark. She also experiences pain at the site of the rash when feeling stressed.

Why are older people more at risk?

The people most at risk of developing shingles are those over the age of 50 and those who are immunocompromised. About one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime.

As we get older, especially when we reach 50, we’re more likely to become unwell. 

“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,” said Associate Professor Woodward. 

“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 this can impact the whole family.”

Brisbane-based GP Dr Sarah Chu mirrored these sentiments and said it’s important to talk about shingles because anybody who has had chickenpox before is at risk of developing shingles.  

“It’s the group in the fifties and sixties, I find, who still feel quite young on the inside that significantly underestimate their risk of developing shingles.”

Two doses of the shingles vaccine Shingrix is used to provide strong protection against shingles and PHN, the most common complication of shingles. 

In adults 50 to 69 years old with healthy immune systems, Shingrix was 97% effective in preventing shingles. In adults 70 years and older, Shingrix was 91% effective.

Make sure you speak to your healthcare provider about shingles and receiving a shingles vaccine to reduce your risk of contracting the infection.

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  1. I had shingles approx 2 months ago and confirm it was a horrible and debilitating experience. I had it on my forehead and on my head. The scarring on my forehead is a constant reminder. The pain was so significant it resulted in a 2 day hospital stay. The ongoing fatigue is relentless. Get vaccinated. Take it seriously.

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