“Have you had your shingles vaccine yet?”
Chances are, if you are of a certain age, your doctor has recommended that you receive a vaccination against shingles, a painful skin condition caused by the herpes zoster virus. Marked by burning or tingling pain, along with numbness, itching and a blistery rash on one side of the body, shingles can take up to four weeks or longer to heal, causing extreme discomfort along the way.
However, many people fail to receive the vaccine, usually because they don’t believe that they are at risk. As a result, they experience unnecessary discomfort. So before you decline the shot at your next doctor’s appointment, ask yourself if it’s because you believe any of these myths.
“I’ve Already Had Shingles. I Don’t Need a Vaccine.”
Because the same virus causes shingles that causes chickenpox (varicella zoster), many people believe that it shares all of the same characteristics of chickenpox, namely that once you have it, you can’t get it again. Consequently, many people who have had a bout with shingles opt to forgo the vaccination, believing that they are already immune.
However, shingles doesn’t work exactly the same way as chickenpox. The first time someone is exposed to the varicella zoster virus, it causes chickenpox (assuming, of course, that you haven’t already been vaccinated against it). For most people, this virus causes a few days of discomfort — anyone over a certain age most likely remembers spending a few days at home trying not to scratch their itchy blisters — followed by a full recovery. However, while the symptoms of chickenpox usually go away in a week or two, the varicella virus remains dormant within the nerve roots, and in some people, reappears many years later as shingles, also known as herpes zoster.
And for about 6 percent of those people who endure a bout with shingles, the virus continues to live in the nerve roots and reappears a second or even third time. Because there is no way to predict who will have recurring shingles, doctors recommend that everyone over age 50 get the vaccine to prevent an outbreak — even if they’ve already had the disease.
“Shingles Is Just Chickenpox. It’s Not That Bad.”
Another common misconception about shingles is that it’s just a temporary discomfort, and not worth the trouble of being vaccinated.
While some people may have mild cases that don’t require treatment, most people find shingles to be extremely painful and even debilitating. Most need prescription treatment to handle the pain, soreness and itching that comes with an outbreak of shingles. Some people even develop an ongoing condition known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes periods of nerve pain that last for a few days or even years after the skin rash clears up. In short, the temporary discomfort of a single needle stick is far less inconvenient and painful than the possibility of dealing with severe pain for many years.
“I Have a Strong Immune System.”
Even people who have strong immune systems and aren’t otherwise immuno-compromised are at risk of developing shingles. In fact, the same study that determined that shingles can return found that the risk of recurring shingles is the same whether you have a healthy immune system or not. In short, anyone is at risk.
“You Have to Get This Shot Every Year.”
The shingles vaccine is a one-time vaccination. You do not need to get it more than once.
“I’m Too Old to Need a Vaccine”
As we get older, the risk for a shingles outbreak increases significantly — at age 65, you have a one in 100 chance of developing shingles, and the risk goes up to about 50 percent at age 85.
That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone age 60 or older get the shingles vaccine. However, the vaccine is approved for use in people ages 50 and up, and some doctors have used the vaccine “off-label” in people under age 50. However, because it’s unknown exactly how long immunity lasts after having the vaccine (doctors are confident that protection lasts at least five years), most doctors are reluctant to vaccinate people under 50 because of the increased likelihood of needing a booster dose or re-vaccination.
“The Shingles Vaccine is 100 Percent Effective”
Unfortunately, like most vaccines, the shingles vaccine is not 100 percent effective and getting the shot doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never get the disease. However, being vaccinated reduces your chances of an outbreak by half, and the chances of PHN by 70 percent.
In addition, the shingles vaccine also helps prevent the spread of disease. While shingles itself is not contagious, if you encounter someone who has never had chickenpox, you could give him or her the virus.
Not everyone is a candidate for the vaccine of course; those who have weakened immune systems or an active shingles outbreak aren’t good candidates for the shot. However, most people should at least consider getting the shingles vaccine.