Seniors & Aging

There are steps you can take to take to avoid the painful shingles virus

Shingles vaccine is highly effective, but you may have to wait to get it

Health officials recommend adults 50 and older get a new, more effective vaccine for shingles called Shingrix. But it's been in such high demand nationwide that it's caused a shortage for many pharmacies.
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Health officials recommend adults 50 and older get a new, more effective vaccine for shingles called Shingrix. But it's been in such high demand nationwide that it's caused a shortage for many pharmacies.

On a routine visit to her physician when she was 30, Darlene Moore casually mentioned something about an itchy, sometimes painful rash on her skin. She thought as long as she was there she’d ask.

“I felt foolish for even saying anything,” Moore said from her Everson home.

The doctor advised her she had shingles and gave her a shot.

“In those days, we knew nothing about shingles,” Moore said. “I was quite flippant about it. I said something, like, ‘I thought only old people got those.’ ”

Her physician was not amused.

At that time, Moore said she was “lucky.” She had a mild case.

Today, at 72, she has not been quite as fortunate. At the time of the conversation she had been living for three weeks with a severe case of shingles that started near her belly button, traveled to her left side and around to the middle of her spine.

She did not receive the shingles vaccine.

The pain is so intense that she relies on the maximum dose of painkillers her physician can prescribe to help ease the burning sensation.

“The pain feels almost like it’s in strips,” she said. “It feels like someone attached 4-inch strips of tape to my skin beneath my rib cage and ripped it off and along with it my flesh.”

She found it painful to talk and at some points gasped as though to catch her breath from the pain.

“It feels like someone has a curling iron pressed against my skin,” she said. “It’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Dr. Glenn Garo, an internal medicine physician at PeaceHealth Medical Group in Bellingham, is her physician. She said he prescribed an antibiotic, salve and “painkillers like you would not believe.”

The rash is so debilitating, Moore said she has not been able to wear certain undergarments.

At least 1 million people a year in the United States get shingles, a painful and often debilitating skin rash, often with blisters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The shingles virus can appear as raised red bumps and blisters. There are anti-viral oral treatments available that can treat the infection, but they work best if taken within three days of the onset of the infection. iStockphoto Getty Images



Caused by virus

Shingles is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus, the same one that causes chickenpox, that nasty, contagious childhood disease.

After being infected with chicken pox, the virus stays dormant, usually in a nerve anywhere in the body, according to Garo. The rash usually is only on one side of the body and it can appear as small blisters.

The main symptom of shingles is pain that can be severe, according to the Washington State Department of Health. About one in five people experience severe pain that continues even after the rash clears up. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills and upset stomach.

Only someone who has had chickenpox – or, rarely, has gotten the chickenpox vaccine – can get shingles. The virus stays in your body, and can cause shingles many years later. You might also get them more than once.

“The elderly are usually prone to them,” Garo said. “However, any one who is immuno-compromised can get them if they’ve been infected with chicken pox before.”

Shingles is more common in older adults and people who have weak immune systems because of stress, injury, certain medicines or other reasons. Moore, for example, has an autoimmune disease, which makes her susceptible.

Vaccine available

Shingles can be prevented by getting a shingles vaccine, Garo said, adding that he “definitely” recommends it.

Patients 60 and older should get the vaccine, but now it is offered to patients 50 and over. However, due to cost, many patients put off getting it, especially if it’s not covered by medical insurance, Garo said. The vaccine costs about $217.

The vaccine is a live attenuated virus. So, those with HIV or who are on immuno-modulatory treatments, or those with primary or acquired immuno-deficiencies such as leukemia, lymphoma, bone marrow disorders, stem cell transplant patients or pregnant patients should not get this vaccination, Garo said.

While getting the vaccine is a good step toward prevention, Garo said, “getting enough sleep, exercise and eating a diet high in antioxidants can keep your immunity healthy to prevent getting shingles.”

The shingles vaccine isn’t foolproof. Some people who have received the vaccine have still gotten shingles. Garo said the vaccine “can curtail duration of the infection and, or allow it to hurt less.”

If you should get them, Garo said there are anti-viral oral treatments available that can treat the infection, but they work best if taken within three days of the onset of the infection. There are also neuropathic pain medications that can help treat the pain involved.

Shingles are not only painful for the duration you have them, they can cause long-term nerve damage, Garo said.

“There is a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia, which is nerve pain that can continue indefinitely, even after the shingles infection resolved.”

Shingles vaccine

Shingles vaccine was licensed in 2006. It prevents shingles in about half of people aged 60 and older. It can also reduce the pain associated with shingles. One dose is recommended for all adults aged 60 and older, whether or not they’ve had shingles or chickenpox.

A vaccine, like any medicine, could cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. However, the risk of a vaccine causing serious harm or death is extremely small, according to the Washington state Department of Health. No serious problems have been identified with shingles vaccine. Mild problems may include redness, soreness, swelling or itching at the site of the injection (about one person in three) and headache (about one in 70).

The Whatcom County Health Department recommends finding vaccine providers at vaccinefinder.org.

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