QUESTION: How effective is the shingles vaccine and what is the CDC recommendation for getting it? My older brother and sister, both in their 50s, got COVID-19 a few months back followed by shingles. Do you know if there is a connection between these viruses, and would the shingles vaccine have protected them?
ANSWER: Many health care professionals across the country have been urging their older patients to get the shingles vaccine (in addition to the COVID-19 vaccinations) during the pandemic because getting COVID-19 can increase your chances of developing shingles. And the more severe case of COVID you get, the greater your risk for shingles.
The reason for this is because when you contract COVID-19 your immune system becomes compromised fighting off the virus, which gives shingles — a virus that already exists in your body if you’ve had chickenpox — a chance to reactivate.
Here’s what you should know about shingles, the shingles vaccine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
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Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a burning, blistering skin rash that affects around 1 million Americans each year. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. What happens is the chickenpox virus that most people get as kids never leaves the body. It hides in the nerve cells near the spinal cord and, for some people, emerges later in the form of shingles.
In the United States, about 1 out of every 3 people will develop shingles during their lifetime. While anyone who’s had chickenpox can get shingles, it most commonly occurs in people over age 50, along with people who have weakened immune systems. But you can’t catch shingles from someone else.
Early signs of the disease include pain, itching or tingling before a blistering rash appears several days later, and can last up to four weeks. The rash typically occurs on one side of the body, often as a band of blisters that extends from the middle of your back around to the breastbone. It can also appear above an eye or on the side of the face or neck.
In addition to the rash, about 20% to 25% of those who get shingles go on to develop severe nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN) that can last for months or even years. And, in rare cases, shingles can also cause strokes, encephalitis, spinal cord damage and vision loss.
The vaccine for shingles called Shingrix (see Shingrix.com) provides much better protection than the old shingles vaccine, Zostavax.
Manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, Shingrix is 97% effective in preventing shingles in people 50 to 69 years old, and 91% effective in those 70 and older.
Shingrix also does a terrific job of preventing nerve pain that continues after a shingles rash has cleared — about 90% effective.
Because of this protection, the CDC recommends that everyone age 50 and older, receive the Shingrix vaccine, which is given in two doses, separated by two to six months.
Even if you’ve already had shingles, you still need these vaccinations because reoccurring cases are possible. The CDC also recommends that anyone previously vaccinated with Zostavax be revaccinated with Shingrix.
You should also know that Shingrix can cause some adverse side effects for some people, including muscle pain, fatigue, headache, fever and upset stomach.
Shingrix — which averages around $205 for both doses — is covered by most private health insurance plans, including Medicare Part D prescription drug plans, but there may be a cost to you depending on your plan. Contact your insurer to find out.
Jim Miller is editor of the Savvy Senior. Send your senior questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org.