Do you need the shingles vaccine?

June 19, 2014
Middle-aged couple in a pool

You’ve probably seen the commercials on TV: A fireman who talks about pain that’s “like a bag of hot coals;”’ an aerobics instructor who complains about “an intense burning sensation like someone had set my skin on fire;” a deputy U.S. marshal who says, “I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy.”

The disease is shingles, and the odds are one in three that you’ll get it during your lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The TV advertising campaign, sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, tries to persuade you to use the shingles vaccine Zostavax.

Should you get it? If you’re over 60, there’s a good chance the answer is yes, says Dr. Lisa M. Gibbs, medical director of the UC Irvine Health SeniorHealth Center

One of the deciding factors is: Have you had chickenpox, the itchy, flu-like childhood disease that causes a blistery rash? If so, you can get shingles. And 99 percent of U.S. adults have had chickenpox. For those who haven’t, acquiring chicken pox as an adult is a much more serious disease. The chicken pox, or Varicella vaccine, is now routinely given to children and is available for adults as well.

Although shingles resembles chickenpox in many ways – those who contract it suffer from a rash and blisters – they aren’t the same disease. However, the same virus – varicella zoster – causes both. Both children and adults can get shingles, as long as they’ve already had chickenpox.

The risk of getting shingles increases with age, and the pain associated with the rash can be very severe, says Gibbs.  

About 1 million cases of shingles occur annually in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Clinical trials showed that the vaccine reduces the risk of contracting the disease by half and reduces pain by two-thirds, says SeniorHealth Center nurse practitioner Raciela B. Austin, MSN, APRN, NP-C.

She added that studies also show that the vaccine prevents and reduces post-herpetic neuralgia, a painful side effect that causes a burning nerve pain that can be severe enough to interfere with daily activities and last from weeks to months.

The shingles vaccine is  FDA approved for people  over 50 and is routinely given to those over 60, Austin said.  Persons who have already had shingles can receive the vaccine.  It is contraindicated in those who are pregnant, allergic to the vaccine’s components or who are immunocompromised.

For more information about the shingles vaccine, contact Senior Health Services at UC Irvine Health, 714-456-7007.

— Rosemary McClure, UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications

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