13 questions about a disease that’s more common as we grow older.
1. What is shingles? Shingles is the name commonly used for the disease herpes zoster. It is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which is the same one that causes chicken pox. Even after a person recovers from chicken pox, the virus lies dormant in the body for years, only to become active later in life. Almost 33% of people in the U.S. will develop shingles during their lifetime—usually only once, but sometimes with repeat episodes.
2. What are the symptoms of shingles? The first signs can be vague and might resemble other routine illnesses. Patients might experience isolated itching, tingling, pain or numbness in one area of the body. They might have a headache, fever or upset stomach. But then the diagnosis becomes clear with the appearance of a distinctive, painful rash consisting of fluid-filled blisters. (The name “shingles” comes from the Latin term for “belt,” because the rash often appears as a band on the body.)
3. How long do the symptoms last? For most people, shingles lesions only last for 10 days or so, and then scab over, healing within a couple of weeks. But if you’re tempted to skip your vaccine and take your chances, it’s important to know that the effects of shingles might be long-term, and quite debilitating! Up to 18% of people with shingles will be unlucky enough to develop postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)—lasting pain that can be severe and disabling. Shingles also can cause vision loss by damaging the cornea, retina or nerves of the eye. In rare cases, it can cause hearing loss, brain inflammation and death.
4. Can shingles be treated? Certain antiviral medications can reduce the length and severity of the disease. These are most effective if taken immediately after the rash appears. Prescription and over-the-counter pain medications, cool compresses, lotions and other topical treatments also may be recommended.
5. Who gets shingles? Anyone who has had chicken pox can develop shingles, but it becomes more common as we grow older. Other people at greater risk include those with a weakened immune system, or who take medications that keep the immune system from working properly, such as immune suppressant drugs after an organ transplant. Some experts think stress also can increase the risk.
6. Will wearing a mask protect me from shingles? You might have read that this year there were fewer cases of the flu and common cold because people wore masks and practiced social distancing. But when it comes to shingles, a mask won’t help you, because the virus comes from within your own body. Getting vaccinated is the best way to lower your risk of the disease.
7. Who should get the shingles vaccine? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that almost all people age 50 and older get the Shingrix vaccine, which is given in two doses several months apart. A doctor might recommend that some patients get it at a younger age. People with certain allergies should not get the vaccine. This is a decision for you and your doctor.
8. What about side effects? We might consider the Shingrix vaccine to be a dress rehearsal for today’s COVID-19 vaccines: You need two doses at a recommended interval, and there might be side effects. Most people experience no more than mild pain at the Shingrix injection site. Some people report fever, chills, muscle pain and fatigue for a day or two. Doctors remind us that this temporary discomfort is a sign that our immune system is doing its job—and certainly a small inconvenience to avoid a case of shingles!
9. few years ago, I received the Zostavax vaccine—do I need to get the Shingrix vaccine? Before 2017, patients received a vaccine called Zostavax. It was not as effective as Shingrix, and the protection was found to wane over time. Shingrix is a remarkably effective vaccine, and of note, it works very well in older adults. Ask your doctor if this vaccine is right for you.
10. Does the shingles vaccine prevent all cases? Studies show the Shingrix vaccine is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles. And if a vaccinated patient does get shingles, they are much less likely to suffer a severe case or have long-term complications such as PHN or eye damage.
11. If I already had a case of shingles, should I be vaccinated? Yes. The CDC reports that getting vaccinated helps prevent a future occurrence of the disease. It should not be administered until shingles has cleared up.
12. How do I pay for the Shingrix vaccine? This vaccine is one of the pricier ones. If you are on Medicare, your Part B does not pay for this vaccine. If you have Part D, it should be at least partially covered. Medicaid and private insurances may or may not cover the vaccine; contact your plan to find out. If the cost is what’s keeping you from getting the vaccine, talk to your pharmacist or doctor about vaccine assistance programs.
13. Is it safe to get vaccines at this time? Doctors report that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many seniors have neglected their routine healthcare, fearing that it might be unsafe to go to a clinic or the doctor’s office. In fact, healthcare organizations have protective practices in place, and will instruct patients on safety procedures to follow. Older adults should keep up with their routine healthcare, and this includes vaccines. Ask your doctor if you should receive the shingles vaccine at this time.