What is Shingles? Should You Get the Vaccine?

by Ken Lewis, RPh

Shingles (herpes zoster) is caused by the varicella zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chicken pox in children and young adults. After you have chicken pox the virus remains in the body lying dormant within the nervous system and is reactivated years or even decades later in the form of Shingles. Although Shingles can occur anywhere on the face or body it generally shows as a painful rash of blisters that wraps in a stripe around either the left or right side of the torso. One to five days before the rash develops there will usually be pain, itching or tingling in the area. Once the blisters develop they will typically scab over in 7 to 10 days and clear up in 2 to 4 weeks. However, some individuals may experience symptoms, such as pain, tingling and burning or nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) for weeks or months and in rare cases years.

Although Shingles can occur at any age, even in children, our immune system can weaken as we get older and thus the risk for Shingles increases with age. The biggest increase in risk happens after age 50 but especially after age 60. Also, people with weakened immune systems due to stress, injury or certain medical conditions such as those with cancer or those on immunosuppressive medications can have a weakened immune system and are more at risk of developing Shingles. People who get Shingles usually have only one episode in their lifetime but it is possible to have Shingles more than once. Shingles is not contagious. You can not get Shingles from someone who has it. However, it is recommended if you have Shingles you should avoid being around children who have not yet had chickenpox or pregnant individuals or others with weakened or compromised immune systems.

There is no cure for Shingles. Treatment may include antiviral medications, antihistamines and prescription or over-the-counter pain relievers and sometimes topical corticosteroids along with wet compresses, lotions, topical anesthetics and oatmeal baths.  The only way to reduce or possibly prevent the chances of getting Shingles is to get vaccinated. A vaccine (Zostavax) is available and recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) for people over the age of 60. The vaccine may not always prevent Shingles but in most cases even if it does not prevent Shingles it can reduce the symptoms and generally shorten the duration of the illness. However, many insurance companies do not cover the cost of the vaccine and the out-of-pocket expense is generally around $200 to $260. Call you health insurance company to find out if your insurance covers the vaccine.



Ken Lewis RPh. is a Pharmacist at University of Louisville Healthcare in Louisville, KY. For questions or comments he may be reached at mnklewis@bellsouth.net.

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