Shingles Vaccine is the Silver Lining of Turning 50
Apr 19, 2018
Turning fifty is a milestone most people would rather avoid.
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
The 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
While 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
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:
- Vaccine Education Center: A Look At Each Vaccine: Shingles Vaccine
- The National Institute of Aging: Shingle Vaccine
- National Foundation of Infectious Diseases: 9 Important Things To Know About Shingles Vaccination
Note: This content originally appeared in Vaccinate Your Family’s Immunization Alerts e-newsletter, sent March 31, 2021. You can sign up for future alerts on our website. April 9, 2021: An update was made to...
If you’ve forgone vaccines in the past and are now looking to vaccinate your child, the good news is that getting your child caught up on vaccines is totally doable. It may feel daunting,...