Walk into any gathering of people over the age of 50 and one of the topics of conversation will likely be someone’s account of a painful experience with shingles. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), almost one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles, also known as zoster or herpes zoster. There are an estimated 1 million cases each year in this country.
“Anyone who had chickenpox may develop shingles,” says Dr. Charlotte Alvarez, Family Medicine, Marshfield Clinic Minocqua Center. “Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After the chickenpox is over, the virus stays in your system but is dormant. With shingles, the virus reoccurs years later. The reason that most cases happen in people over age 60 is the risk of disease increases as a person ages.”
People who have medical conditions that keep their immune systems from working properly, such as certain cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and people who receive immunosuppressive drugs, such as steroids and drugs given after organ transplantation, are also at greater risk of getting shingles.
“Usually, people who get shingles only get it once in their lifetime. A person can have a second or even a third bout, but these cases are rare,” said Dr. Alvarez.
In May 2006, the FDA approved the first shingles vaccine for people ages 60 and older.
“The vaccine cuts the risk of developing shingles in half,” says Dr. Charlotte Alvarez, family medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Minocqua Center. “While shingles could be treated with antiviral drugs to lessen its impact, up until 2006, we had no way to prevent it.”
According to the CDC, the shingles vaccine contains a live but weakened version of the virus. This allows your immune system the chance to “learn” to fight the virus with no risk of infection.
“The vaccination doesn’t seem to have any significant risks, but it’s unclear how long the vaccine’s effects will last. What we know is that it protects people for four to five years. In the long run, people might need booster shots,” Dr. Alvarez said.
At this time, the CDC does not have a recommendation for routine use of shingles vaccine in persons 50 through 59 years old. However, the vaccine is approved by the FDA for people in this age group.
Several antiviral medicines are available to treat shingles. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears. People who have or think they might have shingles should call their healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.