Older man receiving the Shingles vaccine
Healthy Aging

Shingles – A Painful, but Preventable Virus

Did you know that one out of three people in the U.S. will develop the shingles virus in their lifetime? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there’s an estimated one million cases of shingles each year. The good news is shingles can be prevented.

“Shingles is a debilitating disease that is a reactivation to the chicken pox virus,” said Mitchell Edmondson, MD, a physician with Bayhealth Primary Care, Airport Road. Once a person has had chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in their body until something causes it to trigger and manifest into shingles. “A lot of people have had mild cases of chicken pox without realizing it, making them vulnerable to the shingles. I tell my patients just because they don’t remember having chicken pox doesn’t mean they didn’t have it,” Dr. Edmondson said.

"I tell my patients just because they don’t remember having chicken pox doesn’t mean they didn’t have it.”

While shingles are associated with a rash, the virus often begins with a pain, itching or tingling, following along the course of the nerve that is infected. The rash is almost always on one side of the body, but can occur anywhere, even the eye. Other symptoms include fever, headache and upset stomach. Sometimes people have pain along the course of a nerve, but no rash. “Whenever someone says they have a bizarre pain on one side of the body, but there’s no rash, we still consider shingles as a possibility.” Damage to the nerve may result in long-term pain.

Anyone, including children, can contract shingles, but the risk increases with age.

People over the age of 30 who weren’t immunized for chicken pox are more susceptible to shingles. Individuals with compromised immune systems are also at risk. Shingles can be transmitted from the time a person first feels the pain until the blisters from the rash scab over. Antiviral medications help treat shingles and shorten the length of severity of the virus.

The vaccine is FDA recommended for anyone over the age of 50. “The number one thing I tell patients is to get the shingles vaccine,” Dr. Edmondson said. Some people may hesitate to get the vaccine because up until recently, it was only 50 percent effective. Within the last year and a half, the FDA approved a new vaccine, Shingrix, which is not only safer, but has a 97 percent effectiveness of preventing shingles. The vaccine is a series of two shots that are taken two months apart.

Since the vaccine is new, not all insurance companies cover the vaccine like they do other shots. Medicare Part B does not cover the vaccine, but many Medicare prescription plans (Part D) do provide at least partial coverage. Dr. Edmondson recommends that his patients over the age of 50 get the vaccine. He also encourages his patients to talk with their insurance companies about the vaccine. Unlike the older live vaccine (Zostavax), the newer Shingrix vaccine is not a live vaccine, and may be used in patients whose immune systems are compromised, such as cancer patients undergoing treatment.

If you’re over the age of 50 and are interested in getting the vaccine, talk with your doctor. If you’re in need of a primary care physicians, visit Bayhealth's Find a Doctor page or call 1-866-BAY-DOCS (229-3627) to be matched with a doctor who fits your needs.