Get the Facts About the Shingles Vaccine

While the majority of the conversations related to vaccines over the past two years have been linked with names such as Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, it’s important for older adults not to overlook vaccines beyond COVID-19. Because an essential part of healthy aging is disease prevention, it’s important to know which vaccines you need and how often.

Many older adults are familiar with the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines and the protections they offer. One that isn’t as well-known is the Shingrix vaccine. It’s given to guard against shingles. If someone close to you has suffered through a bout with shingles, you probably know just how miserable the condition can be. While some seniors are fortunate enough to experience milder symptoms, many are not. For these older adults, the pain is severe and long-lasting.

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the virus that causes chicken pox. If you had chicken pox at any point in your life, the virus probably still lives in your body. For one in three adults, it will become active again and cause shingles to develop.

While the condition affects nerves all throughout the body, a rash that usually appears on only one side is a characteristic symptom. Other common symptoms of shingles include:

  • Blisters and/or rash
  • Itching
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Burning sensation
  • Shooting nerve pain

The pain can be excruciating, especially for seniors, who are prone to developing a more severe case of shingles than younger adults.

If you are unfortunate enough to develop shingles, it can take three to five weeks to disappear. For some seniors, it can lead to a painful complication called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN is the result of viral damage to nerve cells and can last for a year or longer.

Risk Factors for Developing Shingles

While everyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, the two groups at highest risk include:

  • Seniors: Nearly half of all cases of shingles are in older adults. Risk increases at age 60 and is highest for people over the age of 70.
  • Immune-compromised individuals: Also at increased risk are adults with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as people undergoing cancer treatment and those with HIV.

Though shingles isn’t contagious, people who haven’t had chickenpox can catch it from coming into contact with someone who has shingles.

The Facts About the Newest Shingles Vaccine

In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new vaccine for shingles called Shingrix. The protection it offers has been shown to last five years or longer. Shingrix has proven to be so effective that its predecessor, Zostavax, is no longer sold in the United States. People over the age of 50 who’ve had chicken pox or previously had shingles are encouraged to talk with their primary care physician about this vaccine. Your doctor will also likely recommend getting vaccinated if you don’t know whether you had chickenpox as a child.

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