The chickenpox that nearly all of us experienced as children is caused by a virus called varicella. After the pox go away, the virus lives a quiet existence in some of the neurons of our nervous system. When the virus becomes reactivated, itchy, painful vesicles form. Receiving an antiviral medication promptly can shorten the duration and severity of a shingles outbreak. Overall, the vesicles usually crust over within a week to ten days, but in about 10-15% of people, a form of severe, chronic pain lasts much longer. This condition, called postherpetic neuralgia, occurs most often in people over 60 years old and is fortunately responsive to certain pain medications.
Shingles occurs in about 1/3 of people during their lifetime. A vaccine for shingles is available for people 50 years and older. It is given only once during your life. For people, between 50-59 years old, the vaccine lowers the risk of shingles by 70%. For people, 60 years and older, the vaccine decreases the risk of getting shingles by 51%. The risk of post-herpetic neuralgia (chronic pain from shingles) is reduced by 67%.
Despite its demonstrated efficacy, in my experience many people decide not to receive the shingles vaccine. The biggest barrier is cost. Its price is around $250 and Medicare and many insurance plans do not cover it, although some persons’ Medicare prescription drug plan contributes to paying for it at a pharmacy.
I’ll also briefly address three other vaccines. The flu shot markedly lowers the risk of being miserable with a high fever and body aches for a few days. But it is especially for important for older folks and those with compromised immune systems to get the flu vaccine since for them, the flu could result in a hospitalization or even death.
All of us need a tetanus vaccine booster every 10 years to prevent tetanus. Tetanus is a severe nervous system disorder characterized by muscle spasms. It is caused by a bacteria that lives in the soil entering a person’s body through trauma to his or her skin.
The pneumonia vaccine decreases the risk of developing a bacterial infection of the lungs (pneumonia). It is indicated for all people older than 65 years and in younger people with a condition that renders them at a higher risk of getting pneumonia. In addition, it is now recommended that an additional pneumonia vaccine, called PCV13, be given to people with compromised immune systems.