Maybe you remember getting chicken pox as a child: The itchy welts that were sometimes in uncomfortable places; the special treatment from an otherwise busy household; the quarantine that kept you home from school. Chicken pox was contagious, after all.
And since you’ve had them, you’re immune, right?
For those who have had chicken pox, the virus that caused it—referred to either as the varicella zoster or herpes zoster—is hiding out right now in your nerve cells like an uninvited guest. And someday, because of natural aging or some other insult to your immune system, it will lurch up the stairs and demand a beer. Because this pox is the gift that keeps on giving.
Only now it’s called shingles. Same virus; different beast, and you don’t want to mess around with this bad boy.
Usually shingles manifests as an angry belt of painful, pus-y pimples on one side of the body, usually around the torso. (Shingles is derived from the Latin word for belt.) But it can also appear on one side of the face around the eye or ear, where it can really do some damage.
This virus is alarmingly common—we all (99 percent of us) carry it, and 1 in 3 of us will get shingles at some point, usually when we’re older when our immune system is weaker. For older adults, shingles is not only painful and debilitating, but it can cause permanent and painful nerve damage called postherpetic neuralgia.
Fortunately, and here’s the game-changer, we have a new, more effective and longer-lasting vaccine for that, and the CDC recommends that every adult over 50 get it.
You may have received the older vaccine—Zostavax, which was released in 2006 and was recommended for all adults over 60.
Zostavax is no longer available in the US because in 2017 a new vaccine—Shingrix—was approved and recommended for adults over 50. It’s 97 percent effective (compared to 51 percent for Zostavax). It remains effective beyond 5 years.
Shingrix is a 2-dose vaccine administered 2 to 6 months apart. You should be vaccinated with Shingrix even if you’ve had shingles and even if you’ve already received the Zostavax vaccine. You should be vaccinated if you’ve never had chicken pox or shingles. The shots are covered by the Affordable Care Act, many private insurers, and by Medicare part D, but check with your insurer for details.
Talk to your doctor if you aren’t sure which vaccine you’ve had and whether you have any contraindications. Because nobody wants to waste one moment of these years on a nasty, but avoidable, illness.
So much for the PSA. Aaaand now… back to our regularly scheduled program.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.