Holiday jingles can remind us to get vaccinated for shingles! I know, that’s cheesy. But if the title prods you to protect yourself or someone you know from getting a case of the shingles, it’s worth the lapse in good taste. Shingles affects many people, some with debilitating pain. About 1 million cases occur per year, and people who reach the age of 80 confront a 33% to 50% chance of contracting shingles.
What Is Shingles (herpes zoster)?
Shingles is an infection by the same virus that causes chickenpox (herpes zoster). It causes a rash that develops into blisters on the face, neck, or torso (although it can affect other areas such as eyes, mouth, ear canal, genitals—areas that can lead to further complications) on one side of the body. Often preceded by a burning sensation and pain, the rash can be itchy and often quite painful. Fever and headache sometimes occur as well.
For those who have had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue, usually held in check by a person’s immune system for years. Starting about age 50 (occasionally, in younger persons as well) when a person’s immune system weakens or a person undergoes physiologic stress, the virus might express itself as a painful rash. The blisters usually scab over in 7-10 days and clear up in 2-4 weeks. Beyond those symptoms, some people develop severe, long-term pain (post-herpetic neuralgia or PHN) that can last for months or years. Antiviral medicines—acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir—are available to treat shingles and shorten the length and severity of illness. They should be taken as soon as possible after symptoms emerge. Some medications can also help relieve pain from PHN. In extreme cases, short-term prescription of opioids might be indicated.
Shingles, itself, cannot be transmitted from one person to another. But the virus can be passed by contact with active blisters to anyone who has not had or been vaccinated for chickenpox. Pregnant women (who can pass the virus to their fetus), the elderly, and young children who have not had or been vaccinated for chickenpox are especially susceptible. If you develop shingles, avoid contact with such persons until your symptoms disappear.
If you have had chickenpox, getting vaccinated for shingles is the only chance you have of preventing the condition. The most common vaccine in use today is Zostavax (Merck). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that persons age 50 and older receive this vaccine. The CDC also recommends that persons who have had shingles receive the vaccine a few weeks after symptoms have disappeared. Zostavax is administered by a single injection that can be obtained at urgent care clinics or pharmacies.
In October 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC approved a new shingles vaccine, Shingrix™ (GlaxoSmithKline), for persons age 50 and older. According to clinical trials, this new vaccine appears to be more effective than Zostavax™ It is administered by two injections two months apart.
If you are 50 years of age or older, get vaccinated against shingles. Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a truly serious condition that can cause life-long pain and disability in many people. Even if you have had the Zostavax vaccine, consider getting the Shingrix vaccine since it is much more effective. You might experience a couple of days of discomfort, but that is minor compared to possible effects of shingles. If you decide to get the Shingrix vaccine, you will need to wait until early 2018.
If you have questions, contact your health care provider or call us at Kathy’s Urgent Care. We’ll be happy to respond to your concerns and to help you make the right decision.