If you've had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine, you are risk of developing shingles, a painful rash that sometimes comes with debilitating complications. The likelihood increases as we age. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 people will develop shingles in their lifetime. The good news is that we can avoid shingles and its complications with a new vaccine.
First, let's talk about what shingles is. Early signs of shingles may include fever, weakness, tingling, and localized pain. A few days later, a rash may appear as a single stripe of blisters on one part of the body. The rash may be accompanied by itching, burning, or even deep pain. While blisters most commonly appear on the torso, they may appear elsewhere on the body. Blisters that appear on the head and face are sometimes associated with permanent vision loss and facial pain.
The rash and pain of shingles (otherwise known as herpes zoster) can be extreme and can last for several weeks. Pain that persists after the rash has cleared is known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). Caused by damage to the nerves where the virus reactivated, PHN causes intense burning or stabbing pain and may feel as if it is shooting along the length of the affected nerve. The pain from PHN may last a few weeks, a few months, or even years. Some people with PHN also experience extreme sensitivity to even light touch and often can’t bear even the touch of clothing on the affected area of their body.
Fortunately, there is a new version of the shingles vaccine that can reduce the risk of getting shingles and minimize the chance of it developing it into PHN. Called Shingrix, the new vaccine offers some significant advantages over the previous version, Zostavax.
Because it is not a live vaccine, Shingrix may be safely given to anyone over the age of 50 including those with suppressed immunity. In addition, unlike Zostavax, which becomes less effective over time, Shingrix offers longer protection against shingles and provides protection from PHN.
It's important to note that individuals who received Zostavax can safely receive the Shingrix vaccine and benefit from the extra protection it offers.
Available at most major retail drug stores, Shingrix is administered in two doses over a period of two to six months. The vaccine is covered by most major insurance and by Medicare Part D. Because the risk of the varicella zoster virus reactivating and PHN occurring increases with age, it's important to get the vaccine sooner than later. This is especially true if you are immuno-compromised as you are more likely to develop PHN if do get shingles.
If you’re over 50, contact your pharmacy to schedule an appointment. Or, if you have questions, speak to your care provider.
Marie George, MD, is an infectious disease specialist at SVMC Infectious Disease.