Protect Yourself against the Shingles Virus

Shingles is a disease caused by the Varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 out of 3 people in the U.S. will develop Shingles during their lifetime. About one half of the cases occur among men and women 60 years old or older. The risk of disease increases with age due to the decrease or weakening of the body's immune system. If a person has had chickenpox earlier in their life, the virus for some unknown reason remains dormant (inactive) in the body's nerve cells. The virus can be reactivated and strike at any time, according to the CDC, due to physical trauma, surgery, medications, and/or chronic diseases. There is no cure for Shingles. A vaccine is available that may prevent shingles or lessen its effects.

What are the signs and symptoms of Shingles?

Initially, the virus presents with pain, itching, burning, or tingling in an area where a rash will develop within 1-5 days. The red, painful rash will surface where the nerves from the spinal cord connect with the skin area. The rash usually appears on one side of the face or body as a single stripe and lasts approximately 2-4 weeks. Blisters will develop and scab over in 1-14 days. Headache, fever, chills and upset stomach may also occur. About 1 in 5 people will end up with post-herpetic neuralgia (long term nerve pain) as a result of the Shingles virus.

How is Shingles transmitted?

The Shingles virus cannot be transmitted from another person by sneezing, coughing, or through casual contact. Shingles comes from the virus hiding inside the body, not from an outside source. A person can get chickenpox if they have never had chickenpox (or the vaccine) and are directly exposed to the shingles blisters not crusted over. Anyone who has an active case should stay away from newborns, people who have immune system problems and people who have never had chickenpox.

What are the potential complications of the shingles virus?

  1. Bacterial infections
  2. Post-herpetic neuralgia (long term pain)
  3. Permanent scarring or color changes of the skin area
  4. Vision impairment (Ophthalmic Shingles) occurs on or around the eye; suffer from painful eye infections, immediate or delayed vision impairment
  5. Ramsay Hunt syndrome (Shingles infecting the facial nerve near the inner ear), hearing loss on one side, weakness of muscles on affected side of face, vertigo (sensation of things spinning).

Is there a vaccine to prevent Shingles?

There is a vaccine available called Zostavax recommended for people age 60 and older.

It is a one time (subcutaneous) injection usually given in the arm. The Food and Drug Administration approved this weakened live vaccine to be given in an attempt to suppress the virus completely. But like all vaccines, Zostavax is not fail-safe and some people do develop shingles despite vaccination. People who have had Shingles can receive the vaccine to help prevent future occurrences.

Whether you have had shingles or not, it is recommended to still get the vaccine according to the CDC. This vaccine is generally well tolerated in older adults.

Is there anyone who should not get the vaccine?

The vaccine is not recommended for

  1. Those with life-threatening allergic reactions to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or any other component of the shingles vaccine.
  2. Anyone with a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS, lymphoma or leukemia
  3. An active, untreated tuberculosis case
  4. Pregnant or trying to become pregnant women
  5. Those receiving immune system-suppressing drugs such as Humira, Remicade, Enbrel, radiation or chemotherapy.

How much does the vaccine cost?

In some cases, the cost of the vaccine may not be covered by Medicare or insurance. Call your insurance company and check the plan coverage. If you have Medicare D, you should be covered. Call your pharmacy and give them the Medicare number to see if there is coverage. If there is no coverage at all, contact the Division of Health, Office of Public Health Nursing at (973) 579-0570 x 1211 for available vaccine.

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