Have You Gotten Your Shingles Vaccine?

When I was in medical school I had a healthy 86-year-old patient whom I adored. She was hilarious and always came to clinic with more energy than the students. In my 4th year, she developed shingles and later, severe post-shingles pain (called post herpetic neuralgia).

In a few months she went from being an active, engaged member of the community to being bed-ridden on sedatives.

Unfortunately, she never recovered from the pain and died just before I graduated. Had it not been for the shingles, I’m sure she would still be going, keeping up with the latest class of med students.

Today there is a vaccine for shingles and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone aged 60 years or older be vaccinated.

Herpes zoster (which is commonly called shingles) is reactivation of a chicken pox infection. Once you have chicken pox (or get the chicken pox vaccine) the virus lives dormant in your nerves for your entire life.

Instead of being an itchy blistering rash like chicken pox, shingles is a painful rash that forms along the tract of a nerve. It is almost always unilateral (affects only one side) and limited to a small area.

The rash lasts for a couple of weeks, but the pain, burning, or numbness can last years and can be incapacitating. Immediate treatment with oral antiviral drugs such as acyclovir or valacyclovir can stop the outbreak and minimize the pain and suffering. However, patients often wait several days to see a doctor or are misdiagnosed initially. In these cases, a full blown zoster outbreak might develop, and it is often too late to prevent post herpetic neuralgia pain.

The shingles (zoster) vaccine is a live virus vaccine, just like the chicken pox vaccine. It has been shown in studies to prevent or minimize the outbreak of shingles in adults. It’s also effective in reducing the severity and duration of the pain from shingles. It’s recommended for adults aged 60 or over, even if they have had shingles before (unlike chicken pox, it’s possible to get shingles multiple times). The vaccine does not treat an active outbreak nor does it treat post herpetic neuralgia; it only works to prevent complications.

Some people might have medical conditions that make them unable to get the vaccine; check with your physician to see if you are eligible.

If you read this post and are not sure if you should get vaccinated because you’re afraid the shot will be too painful, then trust me, you should be the first in line to get yours. The needle stick will be nothing compared to prolonged pain from shingles.

Post written by Jeffrey Benabio, MD. You might also like:

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11 thoughts on “Have You Gotten Your Shingles Vaccine?”

  1. I would like to point out, that Zostavax can cause shingles. I was a healthy 64 year old male who received the Zostavax vaccine on 2/5/08. Ten days later, my doctor diagnosed me with “classic shingles”. He put me on Valtrex for 7 days and I was still (1 month later) suffering with red spots on my (right) chest, pain in my right arm and shoulder, and severe itching. I notified Merck and my doctor also did! I read Merck’s “double blind” studies, and nowhere does it simply say: this vaccine can cause you to contract shingles. I have all the documentation as well as pictures. Please caution anyone who wants to gamble with their health.

  2. My mother suffered the shingles in her fifties. This was 30+ years ago. I remember it took some time to properly diagnose, and nothing was helped by the fact that my mom was a chronic “let’s see what’s wrong with me now” individual. I don’t recall it being officially treated, either. The sores, when they emerged were horrid. But then came the complaints and wailing over the pain. Being long exposed to this behavior (the boy who cried wolf) I went quite some time before taking note. But eventually, even for Mom, this event was beyond dramatics. It lasted months. Reading your article brought it back with a measure of compassion I wish I’d had at the time. Knowing what I know now and how her final two decades unfolded, I’m certain she lost some sanity during that period. I’m quickly approaching 60, and I definitely don’t want to go through that. I’ll be investigating the vaccine! Thank you.

  3. The story of your patient is similar to my mom’s story. She contracted shingles approximately 18 months ago and still suffers from the post herpetic neuralgia. She is a different person. Recently her doctor suggested she have the affected nerves treated with lasers as no medications seem to be helping her. I hope this helps ease her suffering. Conversely, my father had the vaccine, and then suffered a minor case of shingles shortly thereafter that lasted about two weeks. He is fine now. I wish more people knew about this vaccine.

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  5. Very nice blog post. I have a question though I am thirteen and have already experienced a moderate case of shingles at the age of eleven. I am showing the symptoms of a new case and am wondering if I could have gotten a vaccine or can now.

  6. geraldine mc court says:

    Hi can you help me?i have had severe pain in the right side of my back and across my shoulders and in my lymph gland for about 12days,now a rash has appeared on the lower part of my arm in a circle.Could this be shingles? Thank you.

  7. I am 42 yr old. I have been going to all types of Doctors for the last 8 yrs. Everytime I went to a doctor, I old them of my symptoms and I had asked them if it could be Shingles or Postherpetic Neuralgia. I was told I was to young. I just recently went to NY and I had a horrible breakout with red scapes, I ran a relatives doctor and all I said to him was please tell me what this is. His words where shingles. He took a blood test for the herpes virus and it came back positive. So now that I have had this for 8 years without treatment can anyone tell me if I will ever get rid of this pain and itching. I was on Valtrex for 2 weeks and a prednislione(?)for 7 days, no relief. Please help me.

  8. I completely agree with the information in the original post. Anyone who has had post-herpetic nerve pain, or even a bad case of shingles, would give anything to be able to go back in time and prevent it. I speak to people with shingles every day who wish they had tried the vaccine, and also wish they had gone to their doctor sooner. Physicians should not only be reminding their patients that the vaccine is available, but should discuss with them the first symptoms of shingles, so that shingles can be diagnosed within 72 hours of the first symptoms, allowing the patient to benefit from anti-viral medication. Just as everyone knows the early signs of a heart attack, everyone should know to suspect shingles if they have nerve-type pain on only one side of the body, usually on the waist, arm, shoulder, face, back, chest, buttocks, or upper leg, and have no visible symptoms where the pain is coming from. A shingles rash typically follows the pain by one to four days. We teach people that optimal treatment for shingles includes three elements 1) prevention (maintaining good health and having the vaccine, if recommended by your doctor), 2) oral anti-viral medication prescribed by a doctor, and 3) a topical cream effective against herpes zoster to give pain relief and facilitate healing. There is one cream that relieves pain and speeds healing for 79% of shingles patients who apply the cream within two weeks of the outbreak. If you already have shingles or want to be prepared, you can find the non-prescription cream at http://TheShinglesSolution.com.

  9. Can anyone tell me what the patient’s cost is to get the Zostavax vaccine?

  10. I am 51 years old and I’ve had shingle over 50 times since I was 30. Someone please help me! The first time I contracted shingles I was 30. I was my first sunburn of the year, and a bad one. Big patch on the right side of my back, I thought was poison ivy. Did the same thing for next 3-4 years. 1st big sunburn, patch on the back. I learned it was shingles about the 4th year. It was always very painful on the patch, but physically I don’t remember feeling bad.
    Next it moved to my head/face on the left side. For the next 15 years I got shingles 3-4 times per year. Sometimes triggered by sunburn, but many times I couldn’t really figure out what triggered it. As many asked, “What’s troubling you?” I seriously was not stressed out. There were many times when I was very UN stressed out. During these years with it on my head the symptoms and pain were typical with the blisters & nerve pain. But, the inside part was terrible. Every time I felt as though I had the flu for 3-4 days, then 1-2 weeks of being tiered and weak. Sometimes I could catch it in time with medication and it wouldn’t break out on my face, but the nerve pain in my ear, eye, sore throat on left side, 100 needles in the scalp, ice pick in the ear – and even worse than all that, the flu-like symptoms for days.
    I never could pin down what was triggering the shingles, but a few things did seem to coincide. Lack of sleep, mainly for 2 or more nights in a row. Just being strung out in many different directions and then not get enough sleep, I mean only 3-5 hrs, for 2 or more nights in a row. I cut out peanuts and all the L-argenine stuff. The only other thing was sunburn. And not just any sunburn, after a long period of lack of sun. The first sunburn of the year usually – tilling/planting the garden in May or first fishing trip in April or May.
    In November of 2008 I attended a VSU Saturday afternoon football game in very South Georgia, in Valdosta. The sun was just right, I hadn’t had any sun in quite some time, and the left side of my face burned moderately. On Monday we were heading to the Smokey Mountains and I started to feel funny- I can always feel it coming. I got a very, very bad case. When we got home my doctor, Dr. Willie Saurina, put me in the hospital to run tests to find out what was wrong with me, why my immune system was down, if I had cancer or HIV, or whatever. He found nothing. He said, “There is nothing wrong with you.” He put me on Valtrex daily. I did not get shingles anymore.
    Then on May 1, 2010, getting my first sun of the year, I was in the sun for about 3 ½ hours and my face burned bad – I had a t-shirt and jeans on. I got shingles, and it was pretty bad. Blister patch as big as a baseball on my face and all the other symptoms really strong. I had begun to think was bulletproof. Now what do I do. This shingles bring my life to a halt every time I get it.

  11. Marvin Edwards says:

    It seems to me once someone learns what triggers their shingles, they’d “get a hint”. Apparently some people don’t.
    I just had a friend who got the affliction and as I read up on it I found out about the vaccine and the cost ($300) WOW! Still, I called the local Health Dept to find out about getting a vaccination. The said they couldn’t get any because the manufacturer was out! You would think at these prices, they’d have a stockpile!

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