Shingles (Herpes zoster) is viral illness that can occur later in life if you have had chicken pox (Varicella). It is a common illness in the elderly, and can cause significant discomfort. People with weakened immune systems are also more likely to get shingles.
Shingles occurs when the chicken pox virus reactivates in the body, leading to a blistering rash, nerve pain, and other nerve-related symptoms. When the infection is active, you can’t give anyone else shingles, but you can spread chicken pox to anyone who hasn’t already had it (this is unusual in adults). Shingles can result in chronic symptoms of severe nerve pain, spreading to the eyes or brain, and other complications. One of the most common complications is the development of post herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is a chronic form of deep nerve pain that occurs in one out of every five affected people.
How do you treat shingles?
Shingles will generally go away on its own. However, treatment will shorten the duration of the outbreak, and reduce your chances of developing post herpetic neuralgia. Treatment involves a short course of antiviral medication during active infection acyclovir (Zovirax) or valacyclovir (Valtrex) are most common, and relatively inexpensive generics.
What about the vaccine?
The Zostavax vaccine is recommended if you are above the age of 60 or if you’re at high risk. It should only be given if you don’t have an active infection. You’ll only need to get one shot as a subcutaneous injection.
The vaccine is not a guaranteed cure, meaning that you can still get shingles if you’ve had the vaccination. However, it does substantially lower your risk of getting shingles, and it decreases the severity of nerve pain and complications.
The vaccine is not recommended if you are allergic to any of its components, if you are pregnant, or if you have a weakened immune system. Side effects include localized pain, redness, itching, or bruising. Zostavax is a live vaccine (meaning it contains a weakened version of the virus), so talk to your healthcare provider if you will be in direct contact with pregnant women, newborns, or anyone with a weak immune system.
Where can you get vaccinated?
In most states, you can find the Zostavax vaccine at your pharmacy and have it administered by your pharmacist, with no need for a doctor’s office visit. It is covered under most Medicare plans, and may be covered by your regular insurance; otherwise you can pay cash or use a discount card at your pharmacy.
Always talk to your pharmacist or healthcare provider if you have any questions.
Until next week,
The GoodRx Pharmacist