2010-04-21 / Seniors

Shingles Vaccine Helps Protect Seniors

Dear Savvy Senior,

What can you tell me about shingles and the shingles vaccination? Do I need to get it?

Cautious Senior

Dear Cautious:

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age 60 and older should get a shingles vaccination. Here’s what you should know.

Pesky Virus

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful and itching skin rash that affects more than a million Americans each year. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster). What happens is the chickenpox virus that most people get as kids never leaves the body. It retreats into the nerve cells near the spinal cord, where it lies dormant, with the possibility of re-emerging decades later in the form of shingles.

In the U.S., one out of every three people will develop shingles during their lifetime. While anyone who’s had chickenpox can get shingles, it most commonly occurs in people over age 50, and the risk increases with age. In fact, about half of those who reach 85 will have suffered a bout of shingles. Those with a weakened immune system are also vulnerable.

Nasty Rash

Shingles is more than a nasty rash. Early signs include pain, itching or tingling before a blistering rash that appears several days later and can last up to four weeks. The rash typically occurs on one side of the body, often as a band of blisters that extends from the middle of the back around to the breastbone. It can also appear above an eye or on the side of the face or neck.

In addition to the rash, more than onethird of the people who get shingles go on to develop serious complications, such as post-herpetic neuralgia, a severe nerve pain that can last for months or even years. If shingles occurs on the face, it can affect vision and hearing or cause brain inflammation. And according to a recent study, shingles can also raise the risk of stroke in seniors who get it by around 30 percent.

Get Vaccinated

The only vaccine for shingles, Zostavax, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and has proven to be very effective. While it’s not foolproof, Zostavax will prevent shingles in half the people who get the shot, and those who do get shingles will get a much milder case.

Everyone age 60 and older who has had chickenpox, including those that aren’t sure they’ve had it, should get vaccinated. Even anyone who has already had shingles will still need the vaccination because reoccurring cases are possible. The only people age 60 and older, who should not be vaccinated are those who are allergic to gelatin or neomycin, have a weakened immune system or take high doses of steroids.

The shingles vaccination is covered by most insurance plans including Medicare, but only if the insured has a Part D prescription drug plan. Anyone who is not covered can expect to pay between $150 and $300 for the one-time shot. For more information or to locate a vaccine provider in your area, talk to your doctor, visit Zostavax.com or call 800-672-6372. Also note that if you’re uninsured and can’t afford this vaccine, Merck, the maker of Zostavax, offers a vaccine assistance program that provides the shot free of charge. Call 800-293-3881 or see merck.com/merckhelps/vaccines for details.

If You Get Shingles There is no cure for shingles. An outbreak is usually treated with antiviral medications, which can help speed up the healing process and reduce the pain, severity and potential complications of the attack. Acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) or valacyclovir (Valtrex) are commonly prescribed. Your doctor will decide which of these medicines might work best for you, but you’ll need to act quickly because these medicines work best if you start taking them within the first 72 hours after you get the rash.

It’s also important to note that no one can catch shingles from you, but they can catch chickenpox if they haven’t already had chickenpox or had the chickenpox vaccine – but only by direct contact with the rash. So if you have shingles, stay away from babies and kids who haven’t had chickenpox and pregnant women.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to “The NBC Today Show” and author of The Savvy Senior books.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column

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