Shingles –another name for a condition called “herpes zoster” – is an infection that results from the reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox.
According to Sanford Kimmel, MD, a family physician from Toledo, shingles presents as a rash that may or may not be accompanied by severe burning or stabbing pain. The rash is often present on the trunk, but can also show up on the face.
“Early treatment may be helpful in diminishing the intensity or duration of the pain, so all persons who suspect they might have shingles should see their family physician as soon as possible,” Dr. Kimmel advised.
“Shingles is most common in people over age 50, but may occur in children and young adults as well. It is especially likely to occur in people who have conditions interfering with their immune system such as cancer, chemotherapy, or immune suppressing drugs,” he said, adding, “The decline of the activity of immune system with age is the likely reason it is more common in older adults.”
Shingles is often treated with an antiviral medicine to reduce the severity and duration symptoms. The medicines typically work better if taken in the first three days after the rash appears.
Shingles can be prevented with a vaccine, however, the vaccine cannot treat active shingles. “There is a vaccine for shingles that is approximately 55 to 65 percent effective in preventing shingles and subsequent post-herpetic neuralgia,” Dr. Kimmel said. “The effectiveness of the vaccine seems to diminish with age. For example, it is more effective in someone 60, than someone 70, than someone 80.”
As with any vaccine, side effects may occur. Soreness, swelling, and redness at the injection site are the most common side effects. In addition, a small number of people may develop a chickenpox type rash at the site of injection and an even smaller number might develop a generalize rash. “As with any biologic agent, some people may report systemic side effects such as temporary fever, headache or muscle aches,” added Dr. Kimmel.
“Shingles is a very debilitating disease and potentially vaccine preventable,” Dr. Kimmel said. “Even if the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it might decrease the severity of the illness. On the other hand, the vaccine can be quite costly and persons may wish to check with their insurer regarding coverage. Some physicians administer the shingles vaccine through a special Medicare Part D program set up through the physicians’ office. Otherwise, the physician may write a prescription for the vaccine that can be taken to a pharmacy that then dispenses and administers the vaccine.”
Shingles facts at a glance
• The shingles vaccine is recommended for adults 60 and older. The vaccine can prevent shingles, but cannot treat active shingles or post herpetic neuralgia.
• Common side effects of the vaccine are headache, redness, swelling, itching, and soreness at the injection site.
• People who have had shingles should get the vaccine to help stop the disease from reoccurring. The vaccine protects for at least six years, but may last a lot longer.
• The shingles vaccine is not recommended for the people who have had an allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin; those who have a weakened immune system due to conditions such as leukemia, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS); people who are receiving treatment for cancer or women who are pregnant or might become pregnant within four weeks of getting the vaccine.