Dear Savvy Senior: How effective is the shingles vaccine, and what is the CDC recommendation for getting it? My older brother and sister, both in their 50s, got COVID- 19 a few months back, followed by shingles. Do you know whether there is a connection between these viruses, and would the shingles vaccine have protected them? — Scared of Shingles
Dear Scared: Great question! Many health care professionals across the country have been urging their older patients to get the shingles vaccine (in addition to the COVID-19 vaccinations) during the pandemic because getting COVID-19 can increase your chances of developing shingles. And the more severe case of COVID-19 you get, the greater your risk for shingles.
The reason: When you contract COVID-19, your immune system becomes compromised fighting off the virus, which gives shingles — a virus that, if you’ve had chickenpox, already exists in your body — a chance to reactivate.
Here’s what you should know about shingles, the shingles vaccine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
What are shingles?
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a burning, blistering skin rash that affects about 1 million Americans each year. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles, and since most people get chickenpox as kids, the virus in those adults has long been present. It hides in the nerve cells near the spinal cord and, for some people, emerges later in the form of shingles.
In the U.S., about one out of every three people will develop shingles during their lifetime. While anyone who’s had chickenpox can get shingles, it most commonly occurs in people over age 50, along with those who have weakened immune systems. You can’t catch shingles from someone else.
Early signs of the disease include pain, itching or tingling before a blistering rash appears several days later. It last up to four weeks. The rash typically occurs on one side of the body, often as a band of blisters that extends from the middle of the back around to the breastbone. It can also appear above an eye or on the side of the face or neck.
In addition to rash, about 20% to 25% of those who get shingles go on to develop severe nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN) that can last for months or even years. In rare cases, shingles can also cause strokes, encephalitis, spinal cord damage and vision loss.
The current vaccine for shingles, called Shingrix (see Shingrix.com), provides much better protection than the old shingles vaccine, Zostavax.
Manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, Shingrix is 97% effective in preventing shingles in people 50 to 69 years old, and 91% effective in those 70 and older.
Shingrix also does a terrific job of preventing nerve pain that continues after a shingles rash has cleared — about 90% effective.
Because of this protection, the CDC recommends that everyone age 50 and older receive the Shingrix vaccine, which is given in two doses separated by two to six months.
Even if you’ve already had shingles, you still need these vaccinations because recurrence is possible. The CDC also recommends that anyone previously vaccinated with Zostavax be revaccinated with Shingrix.
You should also know that Shingrix can cause some adverse side effects for some people, including muscle pain, fatigue, headache, fever and upset stomach.
Shingrix — which averages about $205 for both doses — is covered by most private health insurance plans, including Medicare Part D prescription drug plans. But there may be a cost to you depending on your plan. Contact your insurer to find out.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.