Shingles Vaccine is the Silver Lining of Turning 50
Apr 19, 2018


Turning fifty is a milestone most people would rather avoid.  

Not me.  

After watching both my 73-year-old mother and my 18-year-old daughter suffer with shingles, I would do almost anything to avoid it. And last year, when a new and more effective shingles vaccines was licensed by the FDA, and recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for people age 50 and older, I began looking forward to my 50th birthday.

You see, now that I’ve witnessed shingles up close and personal, I am eager to prevent it and I feel compelled to encourage everyone to as well.  And here’s why…

Vaccination is the Only Way to Prevent Shingles

You can’t avoid shingles by washing your hands or avoiding sick individuals.  The only means of prevention is through vaccination.

That’s because shingles isn’t your typical contagion. It’s a virus, but not the kind that is spread from person to person through coughing or sneezing. It’s actually a virus (the herpes zoster virus), that is caused by another virus, (the varicella-zoster virus, more commonly known as chickenpox).

Over the past two years I’ve watched as both my mother and my daughter have suffered with shingles, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.   

Shingles Pain Is Excruciating, Debilitating and Can Be Long Lasting

ShinglesImageThe rash then developed into fluid-filled blisters that would break open, ooze out and eventually crust over.  She had to be careful to keep the rash covered and wash her hands frequently since she didn’t want to infect my newborn niece who was living in the same home at the time. Since my niece had not yet received her varicella vaccine, she was not immune to the virus and would be at risk of developing chickenpox.  As a premature infant, that could have been extremely dangerous for her.  

About a year after my mother was first diagnosed, my daughter called me from college to complain about pain in her chest.  After I questioned her about her specific symptoms, I began to suspect shingles. The next day, she visited the University clinic and by then the shingles rash had begun to appear.  There were only about 5-6 marks that spread from her back, under her arm and across to the front of her torso, so we were hopeful that by beginning antivirals early she may not have to suffer as much  as my mother had.  

But we were we wrong. The rash itself wasn’t too bad, but her nerve pain made it feel as though she was being stung by a swarm of bees and it just never let up. 

The nerve pain that lingered after the rash was identified as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) – a symptom that about one in five people develop that can result in intense burning, aching, throbbing, stabbing, or shooting pain. The pain can last anywhere from a few weeks, to a few months, and sometimes even years. 

The pain can make you cranky, irritable and unable to be physically active.  It makes it difficult to get restful sleep.  It can be extraordinarily severe and unfortunately it doesn’t respond well to conventional painkillers.  They both tried an assortment of topical treatments – to include patches and sprays.  My mother even tried taking a variety of supplements and altered her diet.  My daughter fell into a bit of a depression. 

Nothing seemed to help. In the end, my mother resolved herself to remaining somewhat housebound where she could wear loose clothing and no bra. Her pain lasted almost a year.  As for my daughter, she continues to struggle with pain today, over a year after the rash first appeared.

Shingles Can Lead to an Overall Decline in Health

Prior to being diagnosed with shingles, both my mother and my daughter were very healthy.  My mother had no notable medical concerns, had never been hospitalized, and didn’t require any daily medications. While she no longer suffers with nerve pain, her battle with shingles has caused an overall decline in her energy level and physical stamina, which isn’t uncommon following such a debilitating disease. It is frustrating though, especially considering how energetic and healthy she once was.

As for my daughter, shingles has undoubtedly changed her life. She lives with constant pain that kids her age just don’t understand. We can no longer hug her or otherwise touch her anywhere near her back or side because she will cringe in pain. Her pain levels fluctuate, depending on sleep, diet and menstrual cycle.  During stressful times of year, like exam periods, the pain flares up even worse than usual. Even the pain pain management clinic where she is being seen admits that there isn’t much they can do for her.  

Shingles Isn’t Just a Disease of Old People 

shingles-rates-by-age_thmbWhile it’s true that increased age can put you at a greater risk of developing shingles, people of all ages can, and do, suffer with shingles.  In fact, about half of all cases occur in people under the age of 60.    

Some people suggest that stress can bring on shingles, but it’s important to understand that stress doesn’t technically “cause” shingles (remember it’s caused by a virus). What stress does is weaken your immune system— and a weakened immune system can definitely increase your risk of shingles. However, there are plenty of other things that can weaken your immune system, to include advancing age, certain prescription medications, living with chronic disease or undergoing cancer treatment, just to name a few.  

With New Vaccines, Shingles Prevention is Better Than Ever

Fortunately, we have two vaccines that may help prevent shingles — the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine and the shingles (varicella-zoster) vaccine. 

The varicella vaccine, which first became available in 1995, can prevent the virus that can eventually lead to shingles.  Two doses of the vaccine, which should be administered at 12 through 15 months old with a second dose at 4 through 6 years old, are estimated to be about 90% effective at preventing chickenpox.

Additionally, in October 2017, two doses of a new shingles vaccine have been recommended for healthy adults age 50 years and older, as well as adults who may have previously received a shingles vaccine.  

Here are a few reasons why the newest shingles vaccine is seen as an improvement over what has been offered in the past:

  • Studies have shown that the new shingles vaccines is about 97% effective in preventing shingles and 91% effective at preventing postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), the most common complication of shingles. The previously recommended vaccine reduced the risk of shingles by 51% and the risk of PHN by 67%.
  • The newer vaccine offers longer lasting immunity and protection can start earlier. Since the new vaccine has shown to be more effective over a longer duration, it has been recommended beginning at age 50, as opposed to 60, which was the previous recommendation.  This is also why people who received a different shingles vaccine are being advised to get revaccinated with the newest vaccine.

While these vaccines can’t guarantee that you won’t get chickenpox or shingles, they can reduce your chances of complications and reduce the severity of the disease.

More People Deserve To Be Protected SOTI_SocialMediaGraphics_Draft1_Instagram4

Nearly one out of every three people in the U.S. are expected to suffer with shingles, yet in 2016, only 33.4% of adults 60 years and older had received a shingles vaccine. Now that the recommended age has dropped to 50, even more people are eligible to receive a shingles vaccine.  

If you know anyone who is 50 or older, make sure to suggest that they ask their doctor about the new shingles vaccine.  

To learn more, check out these additional resources:

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15 responses to “Shingles Vaccine is the Silver Lining of Turning 50”

  1. doritmi says:

    That picture looks incredibly painful. Your wonderful writing alone would be enough, but together…

    I’m convinced.

  2. Not so fast, there are substantial questions about the efficacy and safety of the new Shinglix vaccine when considering the very low, 1/1000 incidence of post-herpetic neuralgia compared to higher incidence of painful side-effects of getting the shot. Further, the voluntarism-based reporting in existing systems of pharmacovigilance all but guarantees that it will take a very long time to discover what may be the long-latency effects. The protection of the old shingles vaccine was found after millions of inoculations to last on average 3 years. How many millions of shots and how many years before we discover the average life of the Shinglix vaccine? Shouldn’t people be told upfront the facts so they can make informed decisions? Or is it “let the devil take ethics” when it comes to promoting vaccines?

    • doritmi says:

      You are right that we will not know if the vaccine also wanes fast for a while, and it may, but you may be overestimating the pain of local reactions and underestimating the pain of PHN. The local reactions reported were not equivalent to it.

      People should certainly be told there’s a high incidence of sore arms with the vaccine, and told the exact risks of shingles, and I agree that they should be talk duration is unknown. But I’m not sure where you see anything in the post that contradicts that.

  3. Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH says:

    @ John H Noble Jr:

    Post-herpetic neuralgia is a far more serious and longer lasting condition than the, sometimes, painful side-effects of getting the shot. I have numerous journal articles; but since the CDC website is quite accurate, I just quote from them:

    “CDC Shingles | Clinical Overview – Varicella Vaccine | Herpes Zoster

    The incidence among people 60 years of age and older is about 10 cases per 1,000 U.S. population annually. There are an estimated one million cases of herpes zoster in the United States annually.

    People with herpes zoster [suffer from a rash [which] most commonly appears on the trunk along a thoracic dermatome. The rash is usually painful, itchy or tingly. Some people may also have headache, photophobia (sensitivity to bright light), and malaise in the prodromal phase. The rash develops into clusters of vesicles. New vesicles continue to form over three to five days and progressively dry and crust over. They usually heal in two to four weeks. There may be permanent pigmentation changes and scarring on the skin.

    Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication of herpes zoster. It is a persistent pain in the area where the rash once was. PHN can last for weeks or months and
    occasionally, for many years. A person’s risk of having PHN after herpes zoster increases with age. Older adults are more likely to have PHN and to have longer lasting and more severe pain. Approximately 13% (and possibly more) of people 60 years of age and older with herpes zoster will get PHN.

    Other complications of herpes zoster include:

    a. Ophthalmic involvement with acute or chronic ocular sequelae (herpes zoster ophthalmicus);
    b. Bacterial superinfection of the lesions, usually due to Staphylococcus aureus and, less commonly, due to group A beta hemolytic streptococcus;
    c. Cranial and peripheral nerve palsies; and
    g. Visceral involvement, such as meningoencephalitis, pneumonitis, hepatitis, and acute retinal necrosis.

    Approximately 1 to 4% of people with herpes zoster get hospitalized for complications.

    CDC About Herpes Zoster Shingrix Vaccine | For Providers | Shingles)

    “Most people got a sore arm after getting Shingrix. Some people had redness and swelling in the place where they got the shot. You might also feel tired or experience some muscle pain, a headache, or shivering. The symptoms were severe enough to prevent regular activities for about 17% of people who got the vaccine. All these symptoms should pass in two to three days.”

    Vaccine efficacy remained high in adults age 70 years and older, at or above 84.7% in all four years after vaccination.”

    I have personally know numerous people who suffered from post-herpetic neuralgia lasting week and even months. I think they would have happily traded this for 1 – 3 days mild discomfort every 4 – 5 years. However, in 4 – 5 years they may well have an even better vaccine. Your approach is typical antivaccinationists, that is, if a vaccine has any side-effects and isn’t 100% effective, then the fact that the risk from the vaccine is far less than from the actual disease means nothing. Well, you can live in your fantasy world of perfection; but I live in the real world where everything involves some risk, so I weigh the risk of the actual disease vs that of the vaccine and the vaccine overwhelmingly wins!

    Note. I got the Shingrix shot and my arm was much more sore than any previous vaccine. So, a couple of ibuprofen and a day later I was fine.

  4. marcgrella says:

    Come on, who are you kidding JH Noble? “Not so fast, there are substantial questions about the efficacy and safety of the new Shinglix vaccine when considering the very low, 1/1000 incidence of post-herpetic neuralgia compared to higher incidence of painful side-effects of getting the shot.” Painful side effects of getting the shot???? Yes, shots cause pain, but PHN is awful, and the real reason to get the new vaccine is because shingles itself is very painful for most and very contagious, even deadly to some, like newborns.

    • jhnoblejr says:

      Mr. Marcgrella, It’s not just the painful side effects but what is not known about long term effects . . . as with most vaccines and other drugs in common use. The FDA and CDC have proven themselves as untrustworthy guides to safety. We must depend on voluntary reports of adverse events after approval of drugs and vaccines for mass marketing and use. As for myself, I’ve been vaccinated for just about everything out there except anthrax . . . and thus far been unscathed. Others have not been as lucky.
      Solution to the dilemma of lack of knowledge and certainty? Keep the dialogue open while doubling down on answering the unanswered questions. A closed mind is a dangerous thing!

  5. Chris says:

    The long term effects of pediatric vaccines is a better chance of a child becoming an adult. The shingles vaccine is for older adults, not for children. Shingles is very painful, and one long term effect is for an older person to not get permanent nerve damage.

    Plus if one gets the shingles vaccine at age sixty, what kind of long term effects do you expect for the next twenty years.

    The FDA and CDC are not the only public health entities on this planet. There are other countries. So studies have been done elsewhere on lots of vaccines and medicine. The United States of America is not sole producer of medical products.

  6. Lawrence says:

    Actually, there are multiple tracking systems for vaccine safety. While VAERS is a passive reporting system, the Vaccine Safety Datalink is an active one – which has proven its worth over the years.

    Also, the FDA requires years of post-release follow-up on all pharmaceuticals.

    Having suffered from Shingles & a year’s worth of residual neuropathy following, I’d definitely say that the vaccine would have been worth it.

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