01 JAN 2023

Shingles Risks Increase as We Age

Example of light shingles rash and blisters on a woman's shoulder.
Shingles can be avoided with a two-dose vaccination, which is highly recommended for those ages 50 and up.

Can’t remember if you had chicken pox as a child? Odds are good that you did, as more than 99 percent of Americans born before 1980 have had the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And, if you had chicken pox and are over age 50, you are now also susceptible to getting shingles, a painful, burning rash that can develop on one side of the face or body, according to Frances Benko, D.O., primary care physician for NorthBay Health. “The rash creates blisters that typically scab over in seven to 10 days and clears up within two to four weeks. However, in immune-compromised people, shingles may cause more serious complications.”

Sounds unpleasant? It is; just ask anyone who has experienced the rash. But, it can be avoided with a two-dose vaccination, which is highly recommended for those ages 50 and up, Dr. Benko said.

“You’re more likely to get shingles as you age, have immune suppression, had intrauterine exposure to the varicella zoster virus, and had varicella at an age younger than 18 months,” Dr. Benko noted. “Although it can occur at any age, the incidence increases with advancing age due to waning immunity. About 50 percent of those who live to age 85 will have experienced shingles.”

Shingles is caused by the same virus (varicella-zoster virus) that causes chicken pox, but varicella-zoster remains dormant in the body only to possibly re-emerge in later years. The rash presents as a single stripe around either the left or right side of the body or, in rare cases, on the face, where it can affect the eye and cause vision loss. Other side effects include permanent burning neuralgia and the need to be on chronic nerve medications, Dr. Benko added.

Thankfully there is a vaccine that can help prevent an outbreak. “The Shingrix vaccine is appropriate for anyone over the age of 50, including people who previously received the Zostavax vaccine or the varicella vaccine,” Dr. Benko said. “It is also appropriate if you have had shingles in the past.”

Immunity stays strong for at least seven years, according to the CDC.

“The most common symptom my patients have after the vaccination is pain and redness at the injection site along with fatigue and malaise that lasts for about three days. This typically happens at the first dose, and the second dose, administered two to six months later.”

For more information about shingles and the Shingrix vaccine, contact your primary care provider.

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