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Shingles: Should You Get a Vaccine?

    • What do you know about shingles? Are you at risk? If so, what should you do?

      Louis Wu, M.D., general internist and CMO of Sutter East Bay Medical Foundation in Lafayette, gives us these tips below to understand shingles.

    • What is “shingles?”

    • Shingles is a painful, blistering outbreak along the path of the nerves, usually on the chest and back. The rash can be extremely painful and, although it usually resolves in a few weeks, residual pain in the nerves can last much longer.

      Shingles is caused by the virus varicella zoster – the same virus which causes chicken pox. When it appears in the form of shingles, it is called herpes zoster – although it is not the same virus that causes cold sores or genital herpes. Learn more about shingles and herpes.

      Up to 20 percent of people will develop shingles during their lifetime. The condition only occurs in people who have had chickenpox, although occasionally the outbreak of chickenpox may have been mild enough that the person may not be aware that he or she was infected.

      Shingles can occur in individuals of all ages, but it is much more common in adults aged 50 and older. The varicella virus lays dormant in the body, and usually erupts years – or decades – after the initial case of chicken pox.

    • Who is more at risk for shingles?

    • Shingles can occur in anyone who has been exposed to the chicken pox virus, even in otherwise healthy adults. However, some people are at a higher risk of developing shingles because of a weakened immune system. The immune system may be weakened by:

      • Certain cancers or other diseases that interfere with a normal immune response
      • Immune-suppressing medications used to treat certain conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis) or to prevent rejection after organ transplantation
      • Chemotherapy for cancer
      • Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS
      • Stress has been shown to reduce the immune response

    • Getting the vaccine to avoid a shingles outbreak

    • The shingles vaccine is the most effective way to reduce the chance of an outbreak. If you do develop shingles after getting the vaccine, it will likely be less severe.

      The vaccine is one injection, usually recommended at or after age 60. Studies are being conducted to determine how long the protection lasts, but there are no current recommendations for a second vaccination.

      The vaccine is not recommended for people with a weakened immune system, pregnant women, or those with a history of a severe allergic reaction to gelatin or neomycin.

      Even if you do not remember having chicken pox, it is recommended that you have the vaccine. The vaccine itself will not cause chicken pox or shingles.

      See recommendations for screenings and immunizations for all ages.

    • What can you do if you develop shingles?

    • If you get shingles, an anti-viral medicine can make symptoms milder and shorter, and may prevent the subsequent, longer-lasting nerve pain. Note that you should receive the anti-viral medicine from your doctor within three days of first seeing the rash. Avoid scratching the rash as this will increase the risk of bacterial infections.

    Ask our experts your health question(s).