Shingles and shots: On the shingles virus and vaccine

This post sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases through an unrestricted educational grant from Merck & Co., Inc.

What you should know about shingles and the vaccine to prevent it

When conversations and considerations turn to vaccinations, immunizations for little ones is most often the focus. Or, for traveling folks, the shots necessary for globe-trotting trips might be what comes to mind.

The shingles vaccination rarely registers in the top shots grandmothers and others consider in relation to must-get vaccinations. Which is a shame considering that, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), one in three adults will get shingles in their lifetime. In the United States, shingles affects nearly one million people each year — roughly half of them are age 60 years and older.

Which means thousands of grandparents likely suffer the pains and problems associated with shingles.

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My older sister happens to be one of those struggling with shingles. Becky, three years older than me, was diagnosed with shingles in her early 30s. After "several incorrect diagnosis and trying medications that didn't work," Becky says, shingles was confirmed.

"It's the most awful thing ever and has left terrible scars," Becky says.

What is shingles?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is caused by the varicella zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. So if you’ve had chickenpox (and who our age hasn't?) you are at risk for shingles. Reason being that the varicella zoster virus stays inactive in the body for life and can reactivate years, even decades, later as the viral infection known as shingles.

Shingles causes a painful rash that can be severe, can cause nerve pain, and may involve the eyes — which can lead to vision loss.

Shingles is associated with normal aging and anything that weakens the immune system such as certain medications, cancers, or infections. It can, though, occur in healthy younger adults, too. Even children. One positive: Shingles is not passed from person to person, so grandmothers and others with the virus need not refrain from hugging and cuddling their grandkiddos — unless it's painful to do so. 

My sister says the pain of shingles is how the condition most impacts her life. "It's hard to wear clothes that touch it and to sleep at night," Becky says. "It also itches very badly, and in the summer it is hard to cover it up."

Yet shingles isn't just a summer affair, according to Becky. Holiday season can exacerbate it. "I usually break out when I'm stressed," she says, "and this time of year is bad."

The shingles vaccine

Thankfully there's a relatively simple and safe solution for preventing shingles: a shingles vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends the vaccine for all adults age 60 years and older who do not have a major immune-compromising condition (such as MS, which I have and why my neurologist advises against me getting the vaccine).

The current vaccine is for those 60 and older. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently licensed a new vaccine so it's expected that in early 2018, the recommendation for shingles vaccination will include all adults age 50 years and older.

No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but the shingles vaccination cuts your chances of getting shingles roughly in half, and it can help make future occurrences less severe. Those who have already had shingles benefit from shingles vaccination, too, as it helps prevent future occurrences.

NFID recommends that any adult age 50 years and older who has not yet had the shingles vaccine talk to their healthcare provider about the shingles vaccination. Now is prime time to consider the vaccination as it can be given at the same time as a flu vaccine.

Learn more about shingles and the shingles vaccine

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Disclosure: I was compensated by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases through an unrestricted educational grant from Merck & Co., Inc. to write about shingles; all opinions and anecdotes are my own.