The Shingles Vaccine: Does it work and do you need it?
I receive several questions from patients each week in regards to the shingles vaccine and whether or not they actually need it. With the Zostavax commercial showing up nearly every time you turn the TV on, it’s hard not to remember the painful stories coming from average Joes to celebrities described in them. So what is shingles and is the vaccine really worth your time and money?
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus lies dormant in the nerves of your spinal cord after you are exposed to the chickenpox virus. Once it becomes activated, the virus travels to the end of the nerve and attacks the area of the body that is controlled by that specific nerve. The skin becomes very sensitive and often blisters and a severe rash develop. Many people have nerve pain long after the rash has healed which can last for months. 99.5% of the American population over the age of 50 are at risk of developing shingles because they were exposed to chickenpox. Most cases of shingles occur in patients over the age of 50, so the vaccine is recommended in people over 50 years old.
Zostavax is a vaccine given under the skin that contains a weakened form of the chickenpox virus. It’s important to understand that Zostavax doesn’t completely eliminate your risk of getting shingles. It does however decrease the chance that you will have a severe case that results in prolonged nerve damage and pain that comes with many cases of shingles. It also will not treat or cure an active case of shingles or any nerve pain from a previous shingles episode.
So why should you get it if it doesn’t totally eliminate your risk of shingles? If you ask anyone who has had shingles in the past, they will likely tell you it is one of the most painful events they have experienced. The skin is so sensitive that even having loose clothing touching the area affected can result in severe pain. Zostavax effectively works and decreases your risk of having prolonged nerve pain and having to be hospitalized for a severe case of shingles. Many prescription insurance plans are now actively covering it and giving patients reasonable co pays so they may receive the vaccine. It also only requires one shot in your lifetime to provide immunity.
Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about whether you should receive the vaccine. Talk to other people who have had shingles about what they experienced. Ultimately, a little prevention can save you a lot of pain later in life and is always a great idea.
Your Family Pharmacist,
Samuel Warnell Pharm D