If you remember having chicken pox as a child, as most of us baby boomers did in the days before a vaccine was available, you are at risk of developing shingles as an adult. That’s because the virus that causes chicken pox, herpes zoster, lies dormant in your nerve roots for the rest of your life. In most people, the virus remains dormant. But for others, the virus reactivates as shingles, causing a rash and intense pain.
Shingles often starts with a headache or flu-like symptoms. Later, itching or pain will develop in one area of your body. A few days later a rash appears and turns into clusters of blisters. The blisters can last for a month or more and may leave scars.
The shingles rash follows one nerve root, so the rash may be a long thin line. It commonly starts at the spine and moves to one side of the chest or belly. But it can also involve the face or eyes, where it becomes a much more vicious disease. In rare cases, it can lead to blindness, brain inflammation and even death.
There is no cure for shingles, and it can cause severe pain that lasts months after the rash disappears. Treatment with an anti-viral medicine may shorten the span of the disease and help prevent other problems.
While shingles is not contagious, a person with an active case can transmit chicken pox to someone not vaccinated.
After months of nagging from my doctor, I finally gave in and got the shingles vaccination. This vaccine is a shot given in the fatty part of your upper arm, rather than in the muscle. It was painless, but left a red welt on my arm that took more than two weeks to disappear. Still, it was a small price to pay to avoid this nasty condition.
The vaccine, called Zostavax, was introduced in 2006 for use in people age 60 and older. A few years later, the Food and Drug Administration approved the shingles vaccine for use in individuals age 50 to 59.
Because the older a person is, the more severe the effects of shingles typically are, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all seniors get the shingles vaccination. The vaccination is effective for at least six years, but may last much longer.
In clinical trials, the vaccine was shown to reduce the risk of shingles by 50 percent and help prevent long-term pain after shingles heals by 67 percent, according to the CDC.
When I mentioned to friends that I was getting the vaccine, I was surprised to hear how common the disease is — everyone, it seems, knows someone who has had shingles, and it sounds miserable. Even a vaccine that’s only 50 percent effective sounds like a no-brainer for someone like me who’s a wimp when it comes to pain!
Some people should not get the vaccination. This includes women who are pregnant, people undergoing cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, people with a weakened immune system and people with an active case of tuberculosis.
Be sure to discuss the risks and rewards of this vaccination with your physician if you are age 50 or older.
Marilyn Ranson is a public relations specialist with NorthBay Healthcare in Fairfield, which is a member of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.