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The Facts About the Shingles Vaccine & Seniors

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonDecember 10, 2013

Shingles is more than just a rash: it can cause debilitating pain and permanent damage, and the risks increase as we get older. But it can be prevented by a simple vaccine.

Watching her mother recover from a massive stroke was an ordeal for A Place for Mom community member Kim Sherman. But, she says, “that stroke was nothing compared to the aftermath of shingles. She went home with full-time care after the stroke and six months of rehab. She will never go home due to the shingles and is now in long-term care.”

Her mother suffers from terrible pain, optic nerve damage, mood swings, and impaired balance, a situation both distressing and devastating. The irony, Sherman says, is that it could have been prevented with a single vaccination less painful than a flu shot.

What You Need to Know About Shingles

Anyone who has had the chickenpox virus may develop shingles at some point in their lifetime: about 1 out of 3 people in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles is caused by the same virus as the chickenpox virus, varicella zoster, which stays dormant in the body even after recovery from chickenpox. For reasons that are still not fully clear, the virus can reactivate later, causing shingles, a skin disease that can cause severe pain, tingling, an itchy rash on one side of the body, and blisters.

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Even after the rash clears up—which usually takes 3 to 5 weeks, says the National Institute on Aging—some people develop a complication called postherpetic neuralgia, which is severe and debilitating pain in the areas where the rash was. This is what happened to Sherman’s mother, and it can last for weeks, months, or even years, negatively affecting quality of life and causing difficulties with day-to-day activities.

Shingles and the Danger to Seniors

Unfortunately, the chance of getting shingles increases as you get older. While shingles is not contagious for those who have had chickenpox, our natural immunity declines as we age, and so there is an increasing risk of the virus becoming active again. Seniors over 60 account for over half of all shingles cases, and the chance of complications like postherpetic neuralgia increases with age, too. Persistent pain is one of the more common symptoms, in fact, for older adults. Even worse, shingles outbreaks near the face or eyes can lead to permanent vision or hearing problems.

“For my mother,” says Sherman, “the shingles hit the optic nerve. She screams in pain. She had severe mood swings after the shingles set in that included being quite combative.” There is an added danger for those whose immune system is already compromised, which is true for many of us as we get older. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Shingles is especially dangerous for anyone who has had cancer, radiation treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, or a transplant operation”—or a stroke, like Sherman’s mother.

Getting the Shingles Vaccine

The CDC recommends the shingles vaccine for anyone 60 years of age or older whose immune health is not severely compromised. It’s also approved for adults 50 through 59 years old. Sherman’s experience was that her local drugstore pharmacy wouldn’t give it to people under 60, but when she called her insurance company, it was covered—so she got the shingles vaccine from her primary care physician. This means you might have to make some inquiries to find out whether your insurance plan covers the vaccine, and for what age groups. Medicare Part D plans DO cover it, says the CDC,  as do most private insurance plans, but Medicare Part B does not.

Getting the shingles vaccine could mean the difference between happy aging and debilitating pain. In clinical trials, the vaccine halved the risk of developing shingles in those 60 and older, and reduced the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia by 67 percent. Even if you have already had shingles, you can still get the vaccine.

Sherman urges everyone to check into the shingles vaccine so they don’t have to go through what her family suffered. “Mom’s balance is gone which is another side effect of shingles. All the gains from months of hard work in rehab are gone. She will never leave that wheelchair now because the PCP did not tell her about the shot.”

Have you or your aging loved ones experienced shingles? Did you get the shingles vaccine? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson
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