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Experts Say If You’re Over 50, You Need This New Shingles Vaccine

Casey Kelly-Barton
By Casey Kelly-BartonAugust 6, 2018

The shingles virus flares up most often in adults over age 50 and the symptoms can range from a painful itchy rash to permanent nerve pain and vision loss. To prevent pain and possible disability, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control now recommends the new Shingrix vaccine for nearly everyone 50 and older, even those who’ve already had the Zostavax shingles vaccine.

Here’s what you need to know about the new vaccine and what to ask your family doctor or pharmacist about it.

Shingles in Seniors

After a childhood bout of chickenpox, the virus can stay in a person’s nerves and spinal cord for decades. In most people, it never flares up again. In about 1/3 of Americans, however, the chickenpox virus comes back as a case of shingles. This can happen at any age, but it’s most likely to occur in people who are 50 or older.

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Shingles usually start as an itching pain on one side of the body or face, followed by a rash of blisters that can last for up to a month. People with shingles can also have chills, a fever, headaches or nausea. In some cases, the virus settles around an eye and causes permanent vision damage. Lasting balance problems, facial paralysis and nerve pain are uncommon but serious complications. To add to the discomfort, some people get shingles more than once.

People who’ve never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine can’t get shingles but they can get chickenpox from someone who has shingles. Because of this risk, the CDC urges people with shingles to cover their rashes and stay away from pregnant women, premature and small babies, and people with weakened immune systems, like people with cancer or HIV.

The Shingles Vaccine

There are now two different shingles vaccines available in the U.S.

  1. Zostavax has been on the market since 2006 and it was recommended for people age 60 and older. Protection from each Zostavax shot lasts about five years.
  2. Shingrix is new. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 2017 and in early 2018, the CDC officially recommended Shingrix in place of Zostavax for most people. Why? Shingrix is effective in people as young as 50, which is the age when shingles risk starts to rise. Shingrix is also more effective at preventing shingles and postherpetic neuralgia (long-lasting nerve pain) than Zostavax. Researchers also say Shingrix seems to protect people longer than Zostavax. Shingrix requires two shots, two to six months apart, to provide the strongest protection.

Who Should Get the Shingles Vaccine?

The CDC recommends that adults age 50 or older get the Shingrix vaccine, whether or not they’ve had shingles or the Zostavax vaccine already. The recommendations also state that adults with chronic health problems like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis should also get the shot, even if they’re on low-dose immunosuppressive therapy.

Shingrix isn’t recommended for everyone, however.

The CDC recommends delaying a vaccination for people who are:

  • Confirmed as never infected with the chickenpox virus
    • Those people, less than 1% of the population, may need the varicella vaccine instead
  • In the middle of a shingles episode
  • Moderately or seriously ill
  • Pregnant or nursing
  • Severely allergic to Shingrix or its ingredients

People who’ve had the Zostavax vaccine should wait at least eight weeks before getting the Shingrix vaccine.

What to Ask the Doctor About the Shingles Vaccine

Because shingles are painful and can cause long-term harm, it’s a good idea to get vaccinated and talk to your parents about getting vaccinated as well.

Shingrix and Zostavax are available from family doctors and at many pharmacy chains, including Costco, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.

Some questions to ask the doctor and pharmacist can include:

  1. Does my or my parents’ insurance plan cover this vaccine? (Most Medicare Part D plans offer coverage, but Medicare parts A and B do not.)
  2. How much will the vaccination cost us out-of-pocket?
  3. How soon does the shingles vaccine take effect?
  4. Should my parent get a shingles vaccine?
  5. What are the possible side effects of the shot?
  6. Which shingles vaccine is the better choice for me or my parent?
  7. Will my parent need a follow-up shingles vaccine later on?

The shingles vaccine is a simple way to prevent short-term pain and long-term nerve problems in older adults, which means a better quality of life for you and your parents.

Have you had the new shingles vaccine or the virus before? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Casey Kelly-Barton
Casey Kelly-Barton
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