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'However bad you think shingles is, it's way worse,' says P.E.I. woman

The searing pain of the shingles virus can often begin along the rib area, as Eva O'Hanley experienced last year. The P.E.I. woman says she's still experiencing chronic pain from the infection to this day. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images - image credit)
The searing pain of the shingles virus can often begin along the rib area, as Eva O'Hanley experienced last year. The P.E.I. woman says she's still experiencing chronic pain from the infection to this day. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images - image credit)

When Eva O'Hanley developed a sharp pain along her ribs last year, she put off going to the hospital for fear of a long wait at a P.E.I. emergency departments.

The former CBC technician instead visited with a nurse practitioner, who thought the condition might be related to her gallbladder. O'Hanley had her blood drawn for testing before returning home.

But the pain kept getting worse. She applied a heating pad to her ribs, still wary of spending hours in the ER.

"But finally at 1 o'clock in the morning, as I'm curled up in a ball crying, I said I've gotta do something, I can't keep going like this," O'Hanley recently told Island Morning's Laura Chapin.

"I pulled up my shirt and [the triage nurse] said, 'Oh, that's shingles.' I didn't even realize I had a rash before I went to the ER. It was red, but I thought it was red because I'd been putting so much heat on."

Symptoms of shingles include a blistering, painful rash, fever and headaches.
Symptoms of shingles include a blistering, painful rash, fever and headaches.

Symptoms of shingles can include a blistering, painful rash that needs to be treated within 72 hours, says CBC health columnist Dr. Jason Chan. (Shutterstock)

Shingles is a viral infection that can trigger a painful rash. It's caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, which can lie dormant after a person gets the disease.

One in three people aged 50 or older and who have had chickenpox will develop shingles.

P.E.I. was one of the first provinces in the country to offer free shingles vaccines as a publicly funded program for people aged 65 and up. In 2022, the province reduced the age of eligibility for the program to 60.

O'Hanley had intended to get the two-dose vaccine before the virus flared up last year.

"I was going to get around to it, I just didn't and I wish I had," she said. "If you're thinking about it at all, just do it. Don't say, 'Oh, I'll get around to it,' because it might be too late."

Island Morning health columnist Dr. Jason Chan said shingles is usually recognizable for its painful rash, which can often develop into a cluster of water blisters. It's characterized by a burning sensation and hypersensitive skin before the rash appears.

The important thing for patients is to get antiviral medication from their doctor or at the hospital within three days of the rash appearing, otherwise the complications can be severe, Chan said.

Concept fight against virus covid-19 corona virus, doctor or scientist in laboratory holding a syringe with liquid vaccines for children or older adults,Concept:diseases,medical care,science. Stock Photo ID: 1690179541
Concept fight against virus covid-19 corona virus, doctor or scientist in laboratory holding a syringe with liquid vaccines for children or older adults,Concept:diseases,medical care,science. Stock Photo ID: 1690179541

The age of eligibility in P.E.I. to receive the shingles vaccine for free is currently 60 years old. (LookerStudio/Shutterstock)

"The clock starts when the rash starts to appear. You have 72 hours to get treated with an antiviral medication," he said.

"If you get shingles around the eyes you can lose your vision, if it affects the nerves that go into your ears you can go deaf. You can even get meningitis and you can actually die from shingles too if you're not careful."

'How bad would it have been?'

In O'Hanley's case, despite taking antiviral medication, her condition didn't improve. She took morphine for six to eight weeks after her ER visits and still feels some lingering side effects of recurring pain to this day.

"I think, 'My God, how bad would it have been if I didn't get the antivirals?' Because it was bad," she said. "However bad you think shingles is, it's way worse."

Ads for a vaccine against shingles recently started appearing in cities in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, including in this Toronto subway station.
Ads for a vaccine against shingles recently started appearing in cities in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, including in this Toronto subway station.

Vaccines for shingles like Shingrix can cost up to $400 if patients don't have private insurance or don't meet the age eligibility to get them for free. (CBC)

Chan said O'Hanley's flare-ups are rare and would rank among the more severe cases of shingles, but he'd still like to see people be able to get preventative treatment sooner.

He said the province should lower the age of eligibility for the free vaccines further, to 55 years old. Outside of the provincially funded program, the two-dose vaccine can cost up to $400.

CBC contacted P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office, which stopped short of saying it would lower the age of eligibility.

"Age is the predominant risk factor for the development of shingles and subsequent hospitalization among cases," it said in a statement. "Peak hospitalization rates for shingles risk per case are observed among persons 65 years of age and older."