Herpes zoster, more commonly known as shingles, is a painful skin rash affecting approximately a third of adults at some point in their lives. It is caused by the same virus that can produce the chickenpox.
Once contracted, the chickenpox virus will never fully leaves the body. After the immune system has developed to fight it, this virus can lie dormant in the body for years. As you age, your immune system can weaken, which may put you at risk of a shingles outbreak.
Fortunately, a shingles vaccine significantly reduces your risk of contracting the disease. While you may still have an outbreak after receiving the vaccine, a vaccinated patient will likely experience milder symptoms for a shorter duration than their unvaccinated counterparts.
Chickenpox symptoms are obvious: red, itchy spots all over the body. Shingles manifests similarly: as a blistering skin rash, typically accompanied by a burning sensation and extreme pain.
While any individual who has been infected with the chickenpox virus is vulnerable, shingles most often affects people over the age of 60, or others with a weakened immune system.
What to Expect with a Shingles Outbreak
A few days before any visible signs appear, patients may experience a variety of symptoms, including burning, itching, pain, and tingling.
Once the rash appears, it may resemble a band of blisters on one side of your torso, from your breastbone to the middle of your back. However, it may also appear on your face or neck.
Some patients may experience extreme pain, which can continue for months, even after the rash disappears. However, outbreaks generally last only a few weeks.
Why You Need the Shingles Vaccine
A third of adults will get shingles, and the vaccine is the only available protection against the virus. Vulnerability increases with age, with more than half of all shingles patients over the age of 60. In addition, side effects intensify with age. Exhaustion, fever, and loss of appetite are common and carry their own dangers, including susceptibility to other infections and malnutrition. Furthermore, seniors are more likely to experience neuralgia and recurring pain after outbreaks. Permanent vision and hearing issues may result if the rash occurs on or near your face.
Who Needs the Shingles Vaccine?
If you are over the age of 60, you should get the shingles vaccine, regardless of your history with chickenpox.
If you already experienced a shingles outbreak, you still qualify for the shingles vaccine, though you will want to wait until after the rash disappears. The vaccine helps protect you against future outbreaks and may decrease symptoms in the event another outbreak does occur.
The shingles vaccination protects you for approximately five years. It is most effective in adults aged 60 through 69, but is recommended for many older Americans, regardless of age.
Paying for the Shingles Vaccine
Although Medicare Part B does not cover the shingles vaccine, some Part D plans do. Review your benefits, including any co-pay requirements. Some plans require you to pay out-of-pocket and apply for reimbursement.
Many private insurers cover the shingles vaccine for beneficiaries over age 60, and some cover it for those over the age of 50. You should also check with your local pharmacy; many pharmacies now provide a variety of vaccines for their customers.
Merck, the pharmaceutical company offering the shingles vaccine (called Zostavax), offers a patient assistance program. Qualified applicants may receive vaccines free of cost.
Talk to Your Provider
Patients with certain allergies or medical histories, including leukemia and lymphoma, are not good candidates for the shingles vaccine. Before receiving the vaccine, talk to your healthcare provider. Your physician is your best source of information on shingles, your vulnerability, as well as treatment and prevention options.