Shingles Vaccine – Should I Get It?

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By Keith Holmes, M.D., Ochsner Clinic Central

Most of us are familiar with chickenpox but shingles may be more of a mystery. Both illnesses are caused by the varicella zoster virus and can result in skin rashes.  If you get exposed to the virus for the first time you have about a 90% chance of developing the primary infection we all know too well as chicken pox.  Even though the illness and rash subsides in 7-10 days, the virus never leaves your body but lays dormant in your nerve root cells.  Later in life and without any known reason, the virus can reactivate and spread along that particular nerve root which causes the rash and pain we know as shingles. 


Shingles most commonly occurs in those over 50 years of age.  Symptoms include a painful, blistering rash that most often occurs on the abdomen or chest.  Pain may present even 3-5 days before the onset of the rash and may persist even after the rash  is no longer visible. Treatment for shingles usually involves an antiviral medication, steroids and over-the-counter pain relievers to help reduce pain. 


There has been a vaccine for chicken pox for children for about 17 years and is quite effective at preventing the disease.  Unfortunately, by suppressing the disease chicken pox, the older population is also no longer being exposed to the virus as well because our grand and great-grand children are not having chicken pox. That exposure served as a mini booster to help stimulate our immune systems and keep the virus suppressed in us more “senior” people as well.  Because of the lack of that naturally occurring booster, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of people coming down with shingles.  In order to help prevent this about three years ago a shingles vaccine was released for use in the United States and as of this year is covered by Medicare and most insurances.  Although not a perfect vaccine, it does decrease your likelihood of developing shingles by about 50% and even for those who still get the disease their symptoms are greatly reduced. 

Some patients should not have the vaccine including those with an allergic reaction to gelatin, patients with compromised immune systems whether from illness or treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, women who are pregnant and anyone with a history of leukemia or lymphoma.  I encourage you to consult with your physician to decide if the vaccine is right for you. 

1 Comment

  1. Chris Mayeaux

    October 26, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    One word, NO!

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