These days, everyone is talking about a vaccine for Covid-19. When will it arrive? Will it be effective? Will it be safe for everyone?
But we have something else on our minds: Shingles.
For older adults, the risk of developing the rash increases with age. Other factors, such as being infected with chickenpox early in life or being immuncompromised, also add to the risk.
That’s why experts recommend that anyone over the age of 50 receive the shingles vaccine.
Keep reading to learn more about shingles and how you can protect yourself:
What is Shingles?
According to the CDC, shingles usually develops as a stripe across one side of the body or face. People may feel pain, itching, or tingling for a few days before the rash actually appears. Other symptoms may include fever, chills, headache, and upset stomach.
A few days after the rash appears, it turns into fluid-filled blisters, like chickenpox. They usually scab up after 7 – 10 days and will fully clear up a few weeks after that.
Even after the painful rash has died down, the after affects can be even worse.
The most common complaint post-shingles is something called postherpetic neuralgia – nerve pain at the site of the rash that typically lasts for 90 days or more.
Dr. David Hrncir, an allergist-immunologist at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, says, “The older you are when you get shingles, the more likely it is you’ll develop post-herpetic neuralgia, or PHN, and have longer-lasting and severe pain. The pain is not easily treated. So you’re left with constant pain that can significantly affect quality of life.”
A less common complication involves the eyes and can result in pain, scarring, and (in rare cases) vision loss.
Who’s at Risk?
Who’s in danger of developing shingles? Anyone who’s had chickenpox, though those who experienced the virus before 18-months are at higher risk.
Shingles is an activation of the varicella zoster virus, the same bug that causes chickenpox. After chickenpox clears, the virus lays dormant in your body for the rest of your life. Although it’s not clear why, the virus may reactivate many years later as shingles.
Experts say that 1 in 3 people will develop shingles in their lifetime, usually after the age of 50. Though some younger adults do develop the illness, it’s far less common.
If you do have shingles, direct contact with the fluid from a blister can cause infection in other people, even those who have not had chickenpox. The risk of spreading the virus is low if you keep the blisters covered.
Up until the summer of 2020, there were two options for the shingles vaccine: Zostovax and Shingrix.
Shingrix was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 and is the preferred alternative to Zostovax, which was approved in 2006.
Both vaccines are approved for adults over the age of 50 for the prevention of shingles, whether you’ve already had the virus or not. Here’s how they’re different:
- Zostovax is a live vaccine given as a single injection, usually in the upper arm, and has been shown to offer protection against shingles for up to five years. As of July 2020, Zostovax is no longer available in the U.S., but may be available in other countries.
- Shingrix is a nonliving vaccine made of a virus component. It’s given in two doses, two to six months apart. Studies show that Shingrix provides protection against shingles beyond five years, and it is recommended for adults over 50, even if they’ve already received Zostovax.
The most common side effects of either vaccine are redness, tenderness, swelling, and itching at the site of injection. Some people report getting a mild chickenpox-like rash.
The CDC offers recommendations about people who should not get the shingles vaccine.
Good to know: Shingrix costs about $280 for both shots combined. Medicare covers Shingrix under Part D.
If you’re considering getting the shingles vaccine, talk to your doctor about the possible risks and benefits in your specific situation. For more information, go to www.cdc.gov/vaccines.