Healthcare has come so far in so many ways over this past half century. Understanding how to take advantage of what is new and effective is very important, but it can also be confusing. The shingles vaccine is a perfect example. Should you ask your physician for this prevention or suggest it for a senior loved one?

Significantly Reduce the Chance of Developing Shingles

People who have had chicken pox, which is most individuals born before the vaccine was offered in the U.S. in 1995, are still harboring the varicella zoster virus. Physical and emotional stress coupled with a weakened immune system later in life can cause the virus to reactivate within the nerve tissue and wreak havoc all over again.

Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of Americans over age 60 have received the almost painless shingles shot. The vaccine greatly reduces the risk of developing shingles according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Symptoms of Shingles

Typically, only the head, face or trunk of the body is affected, with the first symptoms being burning, tingling, numbness, and itching. Eventually a blistery rash appears. This rash is the same as one sees with chicken pox, except it is localized to one area of the body and is band-like in distribution, following the nerve that serves that area of the body.

The pain and itching can be intense while the rash is present, but persistent pain can also linger at the site for years after the rash has healed. This latter complication is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) and can be disabling. PHN is mostly avoidable by prevention with the vaccine or prompt treatment with anti-viral medication.

The Shingles Vaccination and Costs

The first shingles vaccine, Zostavax, was introduced in 2006 and contains a much weakened chicken pox virus. This attenuated dose stimulates your immune system to continue fighting the latent virus, keeping it dormant in your nerve tissue. The vaccine is FDA-approved for people over the age of 50, with the CDC recommending vaccination for those age 60 and older.

A new vaccine was introduced in 2017, Shingrix, with a much higher efficacy rate. Shingrix is administered in two shots over a six month period and has the benefit of being 90% effective in preventing shingles.

Insurance coverage and cost vary greatly. Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage Plans with built-in drug coverage (Part C) cover the shingles vaccine. Keep in mind that there may be a copay involved or you may have to pay out of pocket and then seek reimbursement. Most private insurance plans cover the shot for beneficiaries who are 60 or older.

Who Should Get the Shot?

Anyone age 60 and older should be vaccinated. Even if you have already had the misfortune of experiencing shingles, you can still benefit from the shot. It was once believed that you could only get shingles once in a lifetime but this has been disproven. The rash can recur, but the vaccine can help prevent this.

You should not get the vaccine if you have a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin or any component of the vaccine. Don't get the vaccine if your immune system is compromised by things like cancer treatments or steroids. If you have a mild cold, it is okay to get the vaccine, but if you have a severe illness, it is better to wait until you have completely recovered.

It is important to consult your physician about the shingles vaccine. We can prevent a great deal of misery and pain with modern healthcare, so it is important to be aware of what new tools are available and how to best utilize them.