Up to one out of every three people will develop shingles at some point in their life. This painful infection is especially common after age 60, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over 60 get the shingles vaccine.
We asked internal medicine physician and dermatologist Vinod Nambudiri, MD, with Grand Strand Primary Care, to weigh in on why it’s so important for seniors to receive this vaccination. Here’s what you need to know about the shingles vaccine, plus tips on when to schedule yours.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a painful rash that’s caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, called varicella zoster, says Dr. Nambudiri. “Most individuals are exposed to the varicella zoster virus as children and develop a widespread rash known as chickenpox,” he explains. “The chickenpox rash is characterized by tiny, fluid-filled blisters, or vesicles, which appear all over the body. After the chickenpox infection clears, the virus stays dormant in your system.”
The virus may reactivate later in life for a number of possible reasons—for example, if you develop a weak immune system from a condition like HIV or leukemia, or from being under a great deal of stress. With shingles, the same fluid-filled blisters will show up once again, but they’ll usually appear in a band-like formation and stay confined to one area of your body. When the blisters open, the varicella zoster virus that causes shingles may be spread to others.
The number one symptom of shingles is pain, but the infection may also cause fevers, body aches, headaches and chills. Even after your symptoms resolve, it’s common for nerve pain, called postherpetic neuralgia, to linger in the area where the rash had been.
Why is it so important to get the shingles vaccine?
Getting vaccinated reduces your risk of shingles by 51 percent and limits the severity of shingles if you do develop it. For example, the vaccine cuts your risk of postherpetic neuralgia by 67 percent.
Still not convinced that you should get vaccinated? By preventing a shingles outbreak, you also avoid spreading varicella zoster to loved ones who are at risk for life-threatening complications of the virus. That includes:
- Pregnant women who aren’t immune to varicella zoster
- Newborn babies
- People with a weak immune system or those undergoing cancer treatment
The vaccine not only protects you, but also keeps friends and family members safe from the severe pain and various possible complications of shingles.
Who should—and should not—get the shingles vaccine?
People over age 60 should get vaccinated, whether or not they’ve already had chickenpox. If someone has already had shingles, they should receive the vaccine as well, since some people may experience more than one outbreak, explains Nambudiri.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has, in fact, approved the vaccine for anyone over 50. But the CDC recommends getting vaccinated after 60 because protection is strongest for approximately five years (booster shots aren’t currently recommended, but studies are ongoing to learn if additional shots are necessary after five years). Since over half of all shingles outbreaks take place after age 60, waiting until then protects you when you’re most at risk.
People who shouldn’t get vaccinated include:
- Anyone with a weakened immune system due to conditions like HIV, leukemia or lymphoma
- Anyone who is taking immune-suppressing drugs like steroids, or undergoing cancer treatments like chemotherapy
- People who are allergic to gelatin or an antibiotic called neomycin
- Pregnant women
If you have a fever over 101.3F or an active shingles infection, wait until it’s resolved before getting the vaccination.
“And anyone with allergies to prior vaccines should be sure to tell their physician before being vaccinated for shingles,” adds Nambudiri.
Does the shingles vaccine have any side effects?
“Side effects of the vaccine can include a little bit of skin irritation with redness or soreness at the injection site,” says Nambudiri. “A small number of people may experience a headache afterwards as well.”
In rare cases, it’s possible to develop a rash around the injection site that’s similar to the fluid-filled blisters seen with shingles, he adds. If this rash appears, keep it covered, touch it as little as possible and wash your hands frequently to prevent the spread of varicella zoster.
How can you get vaccinated?
Ask your family doctor about the shingles vaccine at your next appointment if you’re 60 or older. He or she may administer it in their office or refer you to a local pharmacy or health clinic.
Most private health insurance plans cover the vaccine, along with Medicare part D, although you may have a small out-of-pocket cost. If Medicaid or your insurance doesn’t cover it, you can contact the vaccine manufacturer, called Merck, to request financial assistance.