The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made official a recommendation it first put out 19 months ago: that adults ages 60 and older get vaccinated against shingles. The potentially debilitating illness involves mild-to-severe tingling, itching, burning, or shooting pain and is caused by the same virus that caused their chicken pox as kids. Merck, the maker of the Zostavax vaccine, says it has distributed just 2.5 million doses of the shot so far—a far cry from the 43 million people who are eligible to get vaccinated.
Are you one of the millions of people who haven't gotten a shot yet? Then it might be time to have a conversation with your doctor about this and other adult vaccines, which tend to be underused, as U.S. News reported in January. Besides the shingles vaccine, the pneumonia vaccine and influenza vaccine are recommended for this age group, says Curtis Allen, a CDC spokesman.
Some common questions about Zostavax:
Who should get the shingles vaccine? The CDC recommends that people ages 60 and older get the Zostavax shot. The illness can occur in people of any age, but happens most often in those older than 60. The risk of getting the illness increases as people age.
Those with medical problems that affect the immune system—like HIV or cancer—or people who take immunosuppressive drugs, such as steroids and medications given after organ transplants, are also at greater risk for shingles.
Because the disease is so painful and it's now possible to prevent it, people younger than 60 or with health problems that put them at higher risk might want to have a conversation with their doctors, too. Since it's only been studied in and recommended for older people, however, you may have to pay the $150 cost out of pocket.
Why should I get vaccinated? Shingles is "sometimes disfiguring, and sometimes it's a threat to your eyesight if the shingles illness occurs on the face," says William Schaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. It usually starts with a rash or blisters on the skin, typically on one side of the body.
Rarely, shingles can lead to blindness, pneumonia, hearing problems, brain inflammation, or even death. And for about 1 in 5 people, severe pain—called post-herpetic neuralgia—may continue after the shingles rash clears up. About 1 million cases of shingles occur in the United States each year, according to the CDC.
What causes shingles? The varicella zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox—is the culprit. Even after you recover from chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your body, often for many years, until it reappears as shingles. "The virus is actually in the nerves, and that's what causes the accompanying pain," Schaffner says. Shingles isn't contagious, so you won't catch it from someone else (though the virus can pass to someone who has never had chickenpox, causing that.)
How effective is the Zostavax shot? The vaccine reduces the occurrence of shingles by about 50 percent in adults age 60 and older, according to the CDC. For those between 60 to 69, it is 64 percent effective. Side effects include itching, headache, pain and tenderness, and swelling at the injection site.
I've already received the Zostavax vaccine. Will I need a booster shot later on? More studies are needed to determine if additional shots will be needed after the initial vaccination, according to Merck.
I've already had shingles. Do I still need to be vaccinated? Yes, although recurrence is rare. But doctors usually advise waiting two years after you've had shingles before you get vaccinated, says Schaffner, who has received payments from Merck in the past for services not related to Zostavax.
I haven't been vaccinated, and now I think I have shingles. How is it treated? The prescription antiviral medications acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), are used to treat shingles, but they should be started as soon as possible after the rash appears, the CDC advises. Taking these medicines helps to shorten the duration and severity of the illness. Pain medication may also help.