What you need to know about preventing shingles

Preventing shingles with a vaccine

If you haven't gotten shingles yet, consider yourself lucky; if you have, this information is still for you. Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus responsible for chickenpox, shingles can produce symptoms that include:

  • Burning or shooting pain that can be mild or severe
  • Tingling
  • Itching
  • A blistering rash that's usually concentrated on one side of the body and takes about seven-to-10 days to scab over.

The shingles vaccine (called Shingrix) is the only way to protect against shingles and research shows it's very effective. According to the CDC, in adults 50-to-69 years old who got the recommended two doses, Shingrix was 97% effective in preventing shingles. And among adults 70 years and older, Shingrix was 91% effective. What's more, protection stays above 85% for at least the first four years after getting vaccinated.

At what age should you get the shingles vaccine?

The CDC recommends anyone 50 and older should get the shingles vaccine. While younger people can get shingles, their immune systems are more robust and should be sufficient to fight off the shingles virus; immune systems naturally wean as we age, which is why those over 50 are more prone to incredibly debilitating complications.

"One in three people in the U.S. will get shingles in their lifetime and one to four percent require hospitalization due to complications," says Krupaben C. Patel, MD, Family Medicine at ARC Liberty Hill in this recent article in HealthCentral.com. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those who should get the vaccine do, she says. A report showed only about 32% of adults over 60 have been vaccinated.

Review your allergies

If you are allergic to any of the vaccine's ingredients—like soap bark, neomycin, or polysorbate—or had an allergic reaction to a previous dose of Shingrix, you should not get the vaccine. You should also talk to your doctor if you have a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system or are on immune system-suppressing drugs or treatments like adalimumab (Humira), infliximab (Remicade), or etanercept (Enbrel).

Check with your insurance

Luckily, most private health insurance plans cover the vaccine for people 50 years of age and older, Dr. Patel says. "Unfortunately, Medicare Part A and Part B will not cover the shingles vaccine, though there are other Medicare plans, such as Medicare Advantage or Medicare Part D, that may cover at least part of the costs," she says. "I often tell patients to get the vaccine before they switch to Medicare to make sure it's covered." The price for the Shingrix vaccine can vary from $200-$250, Dr. Patel says. Call your insurance provider to learn more.

What to expect (spoiler—two shots!)

Why two shots? The double dose gives your immune system extra time to recognize the virus and build up more antibodies. If you don't schedule both shots simultaneously, immediately after the first dose ask your doc to schedule the second dose in a few months.

Vaccine side-effects

There is no need to do anything before your vaccine, Dr. Patel says. "Most people have very mild symptoms such as soreness of the arm at the site of the injection, so be sure to choose the non-dominant arm," she says. However, if after getting the vaccine you have a fever or feel achy, she suggests taking an over-the-counter pain medicine such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. "Symptoms should resolve in a day or two," she says.

"In rare cases, a patient may have an anaphylactic reaction. Signs of this serious side effect include swelling of the face, dizziness, and trouble breathing. If these are symptoms you experience, seek medical assistance immediately," Dr. Patel says.

Don't delay

Unfortunately, shingles can strike more than once, which is why the vaccine is still recommended for people who've already had shingles to help prevent any future occurrences (one-third of unvaccinated Americans will get shingles, and about 5% of those will get it more than once). And while the shingles vaccine affords superhero-like levels of protection against the virus (protection that lasts about five years, according to the Centers for Disease Control), no vaccine is 100-percent effective. "It's possible to still get shingles after being vaccinated, but the vaccine can significantly reduce the intensity of shingles if you become infected," Dr. Patel says. And as of now, a booster isn't recommended.

Make an appointment today

If you would like to talk to Dr. Patel about the shingles vaccine, make an appointment online at ARCBookNow.com or by calling ARC Liberty Hill at 512-778-7003.

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