By Kathy Hubbard
Shingles is an extremely painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus that’s the same one that caused those chickenpox you had when you were a kid. If you remember the rash you got then, multiply the pain by a million, and you’ve got shingles.
The thing is that the virus lays dormant in your nervous system for years and years and at some point, reactivates and travels along the nerve pathways to your skin and voila, shingles. Not everyone who’s had chickenpox will get shingles, but if you’re over 50, you might want to think about ensuring that you won’t.
I know. I’ve had them. The only way I can describe the pain is to say that it’s like a zillion tiny needles poking you constantly. I had them in my hair, on my forehead, and then in my eye. For most people, the rash appears as a single stripe of blisters that wrap around one side of the torso or the other.
“The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body,” Mayo Clinic explains. “These signs and symptoms may include pain, burning, numbness or tingling; sensitivity to touch; a red rash that begins a few days after the pain; fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over, and itching.”
Some people will run a fever, suffer headaches, sensitivity to light, and just feel fatigued all the time. Some people will get the pain but not the rash. And, symptoms sometimes can be mistaken for heart, lung, or kidney ailments.
While the rash is active, you are contagious to anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox. So, it’s of particular importance to stay away from pregnant women, infants, and anyone whose immune systems are compromised as in those undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, or those taking immunosuppressive medications.
The most common complication is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). “For some people, shingles pain continues long after the blisters have cleared. This condition occurs when damaged nerve fibers send confused and exaggerated messages of pain from your skin to your brain,” Mayo says.
I’m one of the ones who suffered vision loss. Others may experience neurological problems, including inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), facial paralysis, or hearing and balance problems. “If shingles blisters aren’t properly treated, bacterial skin infections may develop,” Mayo adds.
People over 50 are the most susceptible to get shingles, and the risk increases the older you get. If you’re 80 years old, you have a 50 percent chance you’ll develop shingles.
But wait! There’s a vaccine. Actually, there are two of them. In 2006 the Food and Drug Administration approved Zostavax, which reduced the risk of shingles by 51 percent and the risk of PHN by 67 percent for up to five years. Then, in 2017, the FDA approved Shingrix, which provides stronger protection against shingles and PHN.
“Two doses of Shingrix is more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles and PHN,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. “Protection stays above 85 percent for at least the first four years after you get vaccinated.”
Although the CDC says Shingrix is preferable, I will tell you to talk to your primary care provider if you have a suspicion that you may be allergic to Zostavax or if Shingrix isn’t available when you’re ready to be vaccinated. They are both extremely safe.
“Healthy adults 50 years and older should get two doses of Shingrix, separated by two to six months,” CDC says. “There is no maximum age for getting Shingrix.” And you should get vaccinated even if you’ve previously had shingles as they can reoccur and whether or not you remember having had chickenpox as a child.
Side effects may include a sore arm and redness at the injection site. Some people report feeling tired, having muscle pain, a headache, a fever, stomach pain, or nausea that goes away in 24 to 48 hours. Most symptoms are mild and go away on their own and, in my humble opinion, are a small price to pay to prevent shingles. Trust me; you don’t want them.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.