Shingles is triggered by a virus that almost all people in Switzerland have carried in their bodies since childhood. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), 98% of adults have antibodies against the varicella-zoster virus - popularly known as chickenpox.
After contracting chickenpox, the virus remains in the body for life and lies dormant in the ganglia (nerve nodes). In old age or if people have an immune deficiency, the virus can become active again. The FOPH states that around 20% of people who carry the varicella-zoster virus contract shingles later in life.
When reactivated, the virus reaches the skin via the nerve pathways, where it first triggers itching and pain. This is followed by skin irritation and rashes with blisters. This often occurs on the back, in the abdominal region or also on the face.
"If the disease is diagnosed in the first 72 hours, it can be treated easily," says Dr Silke Schmitt Oggier, Medical Director of santé24 telemedicine service. The first signs of shingles are itching and shooting pain, even before the first skin irritations are visible. "It is worth consulting a doctor or the telemedicine service early on, when the first symptoms appear and start to get worse," says Dr Schmitt Oggier. If you do this, you can prevent the symptoms from spreading further or lasting as long.
Although the blisters and itching are very unpleasant, this is not the worst part of the disease. "Patients often suffer from pain that feels like small knife wounds.” In some cases, this nerve pain can last for months or years.
Prevention through vaccination
Since February 2022 there is a new vaccination against shingles in Switzerland that is covered by basic insurance (less any deductible or excess). According to Infovac, the new vaccine provides 91% protection against shingles. The FOPH recommends vaccination for healthy people aged 65 and over, patients with immunodeficiency aged 50 and over, and people with severe immunodeficiency aged 18 and over.
As shingles can occur several times, the vaccination is also recommended for people who have already had it. The virus retreats back into the nerve nodes after the acute phase and can break out again if the immune system is weakened.
Is it contagious?
Shingles is a disease that can break out when the immune system is weakened. When this happens, viruses that are dormant in the body are reactivated. The disease itself is not transmissible, but the varicella-zoster virus found in the shingles blisters is. This can affect children or even adults who have not had chickenpox yet, who can contract chickenpox through contact with the shingles blisters, for example by touching the person or via contaminated objects such as door handles.