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Shingles and the Importance of Vaccination
What is shingles?
Shingles (herpes zoster or zoster) is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox can come down with shingles. Risk increases with age. Half of all cases of shingles are in people over sixty. In the United States, there are an estimated one million new cases of shingles each year. Symptoms of shingles include:
- A painful, uncomfortable skin rash: The rash will begin with tingling and/or pain, or sometimes numbness or itching in one area.Within a few days a rash will begin to develop and it may spread, usually only on one side of your body. Finally, fluid-filled blisters that are very similar to the chickenpox blisters will grow out of the rash.
- Mild to intense pain. Some people will have mostly itching; others will feel pain, even from the gentlest touch or breeze.
- Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach.
The outbreak can last from two weeks to several weeks. A few people (about 1 in 5) will continue to have pain even after the rash has cleared-up. In rare cases shingles can lead to serious health problems. Most people will only have one outbreak in a lifetime, although a second and third outbreak is possible. Shingles can cause scarring.
What is the risk?
Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles. Some people have a higher risk of getting shingles, those include:
- Anyone over 50 years old (the risk continues to increases with age).
- Anyone with a weakened immune system from illness (such as cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and the virus that causes AIDS).
- People who are taking drugs that suppress the immune system (such as steroids and drugs given after organ transplantation).
Anyone who gets shingles should see their health care provider immediately. The earlier you get treatment, the better. Treatment of shingles has greatly improved and your doctor should be able to provide you with medications that will help you feel more comfortable.
Can shingles be passed from person to person?
No one can spread shingles. The only way you can get shingles is by having chickenpox. The virus that causes shingles can be passed from one person to another during the blister stage – if the blisters are touched. However, that person would come down with chickenpox, not shingles. The virus is not spread through sneezing, coughing or casual contact. Once the blisters have developed a scab, the virus can no longer be spread.
Can shingles be prevented?
Yes, you can prevent shingles by getting the shingles vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults over 60 years of age get a one-time shot of the vaccine, even if they have had a prior outbreak of shingles.
Some people should not get a shingles vaccine, however. Talk to your doctor before getting the shingles vaccine if you:
- Have ever had an allergic reaction to a vaccination
- Have a weakened immune system because of:
- Any disease that affects the immune system
- Treatment with drugs that affect the immune system
- Cancer treatment (radiation or chemotherapy)
- A history of cancer that affects the bone marrow or lymphatic system (leukemia or lymphoma)
- A case of active, untreated tuberculosis
- Are pregnant or think you may be pregnant. Women should not become pregnant for at least three months after getting the shot.
You may be vaccinated if you are mildly ill (a slight cold). But anyone who is moderately or severely ill should wait until they recover before getting the vaccine; this includes anyone with a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
How safe is the vaccine?
There is very little risk of the vaccine causing serious harm. Some people do have a mild reaction to the vaccine, which includes:
- Redness, soreness, swelling, or itching at the site of the injection (about 1 person in 3)
- Headache (about 1 person in 70)How will I benefit from being vaccinated?
How will I benefit from being vaccinated?
People who are vaccinated will benefit by:
- Having a greatly reduced chance of experiencing an outbreak of shingles
- Those that do have an outbreak will experience a milder case
- Avoiding the discomfort and cost associated with shingles (pain, lost time at work, medical costs)
Will Medicare cover the shingles vaccination?
The shingles vaccination will only be covered if you have a Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan. The amount of copayment / coinsurance (money you have to pay) for the vaccination varies, depending on your plan. Medicare part B does not cover the shingles vaccine.
Where can I get a shingles shot?
The shingles vaccination is available through your health care provider or at your doctor's office.