According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in three Americans develops shingles in their lifetime. Every year this common yet painful disease inflicts around a million people in the U.S. alone. Thankfully, there is a highly-effective vaccine against shingles, called Shingrix, and the medical community urges adults over 50 to get vaccinated. But because of reports of injection discomfort, along with other side effects – not to mention some controversy over the COVID vaccines – some adults are hesitant to get their shot.
In this article from the health desk at US News, Lisa Esposito separates the facts from the fiction about shingles, Shingrix, and the issues surrounding both. We thought it would make valuable, timely, and thought-provoking reading for our audience here at AgingOptions.
What is Shingles? Symptoms, Causes, and Complications
Shingles is a painful disease typified by an itchy, fluid-filled rash that shows up on various areas of the body, often the back or chest and sometimes the face. This rash-like cluster of blisters can lead to hypersensitivity of the skin and cause permanent scarring. Many sufferers experience headaches and fever as a result of shingles. The disease is so uncomfortable that it can make it difficult for someone to live their daily life without pain, and it often requires medication to regulate the discomfort when the disease is at its peak.
As the article explains, shingles is a direct result of the varicella-zoster virus, which infamously shows up in the body as chickenpox, typically in childhood. Initially suppressed by the body’s immune system, the virus lies dormant in the body until, as a person ages, their immune response weakens and allows the virus to reactivate into herpes zoster, or shingles.
Shingles Can Be Contagious – and Serious
While chickenpox has a reputation for being highly contagious, shingles is similar but different. If someone suffering from the blister stage of shingles infects a person who has never had chickenpox or a vaccine for chickenpox, then the virus will transmit – but it will show up as chickenpox. Therefore, people with shingles should avoid contact with those who have weakened immune systems, such as pregnant women and newborns.
As for the most common complications, Esposito paints a stark picture. “Shingles pain can persist well after skin lesions have healed,” she writes. “Chronic, severe pain that lasts weeks, months or years after shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia. Up to 15 percent of people with shingles develop postherpetic neuralgia, according to the CDC, and the risk increases with age.” The repercussions of such pain can take a physical and emotional toll, as it becomes difficult for sufferers to live, work, and socialize. There are also rare but potentially harmful physical complications include vision or hearing loss, muscle weakness or paralysis, and even encephalitis. So, the stakes for preventing shingles are higher than you might think.
The Safety and Side Effects of Shingrix
The Shingrix vaccine is a widely-available, highly-effective preventative for shingles that typically works in two doses, around two to six months apart, for healthy adults over 50. Described as an immune enhancer, Esposito explains, “Shingrix is a non-live, recombinant vaccine that is manufactured using only a specific piece of protein from the shingles-related virus.”
Like all approved vaccines, Shingrix is considered safe and is continually and rigorously screened. The greatest potential risks seem to be linked to patients with autoimmune disorders, chiefly Guillain-Barré syndrome, as well as patients with cancer or other lowered immune systems. As always, it’s essential to ask your doctor about any vaccines you intend to get.
That said, Shingrix does have possible, temporary side effects for any patient. Cleveland geriatrician Dr. Ardeshir Hashmi explains, “Mostly, people are having local reactions to vaccination with pain, redness and swelling at the injection site. Fewer patients have generalized symptoms such as muscle aches and pain, fatigue or headaches. Rarely, patients develop fever or gastrointestinal symptoms.”
While it’s important to monitor the vaccination site for infection, most of the common side effects can be easily treated and alleviated at home with ice packs and over-the-counter pain medication, and should subside within a week or so.
COVID-19’s Effect on the Shingles Vaccine
The momentum of vaccinations against shingles was slowed significantly by the COVID pandemic, thanks to people choosing not to risk leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. Because of this, many older adults are behind on their shingles vaccinations.
If you’re planning to catch up on your doses of Shingrix while also juggling the COVID vaccine, make sure you time it right and prioritize. Experts say it’s more important to get the vaccine for COVID first, and then allow a two-week space before you get Shingrix. But make sure you put Shingrix high on your list of priorities! As seen above, shingles is no joke.
Hashmi notes that the pandemic caused a real upswing in shingles cases. “Early in the pandemic,” he says, “patients weren’t able to come in for vaccines or any sort of preventive care. The other reason we saw a real uptick in the beginning was the stress of the pandemic. The anxiety and social isolation mediated that stress. Older adults have decreased immunity, anyway. So that combination – stress superimposed on decreased immunity – is a real fertile ground for shingles cases to spike.”
Put Shingrix On Your List of New Year’s Resolutions
There really is no reason not to make vaccination against shingles a priority if you’re an adult over 50. Most health insurance should cover Shingrix, although you might want to check your plan’s details, since some enrollees under 60 might not be covered for the vaccine. Esposito adds, “Medicare Part D covers commercially available vaccines like shingles shots, according to Medicare.gov. People who haven’t met their deductible may have to pay some or all of the roughly $325 cost to receive both shots.”
Aside from cost, awareness of shingles—and how easy it is to prevent it—is the first step. More and more people are getting vaccinated, and the shingles cases that exist are often milder than they have been in the past. This is a great sign that more painful and complication-ridden forms of shingles are lessening over time through vaccination.
Hashmi is one of many doctors and medical experts who urges people to get the vaccine. Not only is it highly effective and very safe, but it also has the potential of lessening your degree of shingles even if you do end up contracting it. No one needs to face their retirement years worrying about a painful and life-altering disease if they don’t have to. For so many aging adults, vaccines like Shingrix can mean the difference between optimal quality of life and deep, lasting discomfort. As Hashmi so eloquently puts it, “Prevention is better than cure.”
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(originally reported at https://health.usnews.com)