Should You Get the Shingles Vaccine?

Remember that bout with chicken pox you had as a kid? You probably spent a good deal of time soaking in a baking-soda bath and trying not to scratch those itchy lesions. Fortunately, the infection cleared up with no long-lasting effects, right? Wrong! If you've ever had chicken pox, you're at risk of getting a related disease called shingles as you get older. And shingles might be even more painful than chicken pox is itchy.

After you have the chicken pox, the virus quiets down but doesn't actually disappear. It stays dormant in the roots of your spinal cord for decades. If you get sick or come under stress in your later years, the virus can flare up suddenly and intensely in the form of shingles also known as herpes zoster. It can cause serious pain and permanent nerve damage and is particularly destructive to people who are 80 or older.

Shingles normally presents with severe pain, tingling, or burning on one side of the body. That's followed by red, scaly blisters that break, dry, and crust over. While these blisters commonly occur from the spine all the way around to the stomach or chest, they can also show up on the face. In addition, you may have fever, stomach pain, headache, joint pain, and problems with your vision or your taste buds. The disease usually clears within a matter of weeks if treated with an antiviral medication. However, the discomfort of the illness and possible complications mean it's best to avoid getting it in the first place.

The good news? The shingles vaccine is very effective at eradicating your shingles risk. A study of more than 300,000 older people showed that vaccinations reduced the incidence of the disease by 55 percent. The vaccine is particularly useful in preventing a complication called ophthalmic shingles, which can damage eyes and even cause blindness.  

The bad news? It's very hard to get the vaccine. Although 500,000 older people in this country get shingles every year, only 10 percent get vaccinated against it. One reason is that the vaccine's manufacturer hasn't managed to produce a steady supply. It's currently on back order and won't be available until well into the spring.

Another reason is that it's expensive-from $160 to $300 if you're without insurance or your plan doesn't cover it (as many plans don't). While the vaccine is covered under Medicare, you need to get it in a pharmacy rather than a doctor's office. Unfortunately, it isn't easy finding a pharmacy these days that has it in stock.

National Institutes of Health