What if you could cut your risk by half of getting a painful condition that affects one million Americans annually? I’m talking about shingles – a painful, blistering skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Virtually everyone over the age of 40 has had chickenpox in childhood. After getting chickenpox, the virus becomes dormant in certain nerves in your body. Shingles happens when the virus reactivates in those nerves. No one knows why exactly the chickenpox virus becomes active later in life, but it’s estimated that up to 25% of the population gets shingles at some point in their lifetime, though it mostly affects older adults.
What’s the first sign of shingles? Pain, tingling, burning, or numbness of the skin is usually the first sign of shingles, followed by a rash a few days later.
Are there complications? About 30% of the time, complications can develop from shingles, including chronic, severe pain and the condition post-herpetic neuralgia that could continue for many days, months, or even years post-infection. Permanent nerve damage from shingles is also possible. Caught early enough, oral antiviral medications may help shorten the illness episode. For pain, over-the-counter pain relievers as well as prescription pain relievers are usually recommended.
Who’s at highest risk for shingles? While shingles can occur at any age, it’s more common in people over 50 years of age. A weak immune system as a result of illness or medications can also increase the risk of shingles. It’s possible that the virus that causes shingles can be transmitted if there’s direct contact with the shingles rash by someone who has not had chickenpox as a child or the chickenpox vaccine, but it’s more likely that the person develops chickenpox, not shingles.
How can shingles be prevented? Zostavax® is the vaccine introduced in 2006 to prevent shingles. The Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends a single dose of the zoster vaccine for adults 60 years or older as part of their routine health care, although it can also be given to adults 50-59. Despite its availability, the shingles vaccine is vastly underused. In the two years after the vaccine became available, fewer than 10% percent of all eligible patients have received it. Yet a recent study of the medical records of almost 200,000 people found that the vaccine is safe and well tolerated.
Where can I get the shingles vaccine? Walgreens immunization-trained pharmacists can administer a wide range of CDC-recommended immunizations and vaccines, including Zostavax®.
By Pharmacist Andy