Older Americans at High Risk for Shingles Unless Vaccinated

Southwest Ohio Physician Shares Warning Signs and Prevention Methods to Decrease Risk

DAYTON, Ohio (July 30, 2012)Dr. Suzanne Bell has a warning for older Southwest Ohio residents: If you’ve never been vaccinated, you’re at an increased risk for shingles.

Shingles affect one in three people in their lifetime and one in two people who live to age 85, says Dr. Bell, a primary care physician at Vandalia Family Care, part of Premier HealthNet. This heightens the importance for older Americans to discuss shingles prevention with their primary care physicians.

“Shingles is a reactivation of the virus that causes the chickenpox,” said Dr. Bell. “When somebody is exposed to the virus the first time, they will get chickenpox. Then the virus lies dormant in the body and can be reactivated essentially at any time, but it usually happens more with age.”

The reactivation of the virus causes a blistering skin rash that lasts two-to-four weeks. The rash is localized to only one half of the body and generally wraps around the front or back. While the main symptom is a painful and/or itchy rash, other symptoms may include fever, headache, chills and upset stomach. Severe cases can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or even death. One in five people will also experience severe pain long after the rash clears up, called post-herpetic neuralgia. Dr. Bell says that this nerve pain can last for months and can be debilitating. 

While only those who have had chickenpox are at risk since they already have the virus, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests almost all people older than 40 have had chickenpox, even if they do not remember. The open blisters caused by shingles are only contagious to those who have never had chickenpox.

“If somebody was exposed to open blisters and has not had chicken pox, they could develop chicken pox, but not shingles,” explains Dr. Bell. “If someone has had chicken pox, they cannot catch shingles from someone else. Someone who has shingles should keep the rash covered and stay away from pregnant women and people with poor immune systems.

Risk significantly increases with age and is most common in people age 50 or older. It’s also more common in people who have weakened immune systems due to HIV, cancer, auto-immune conditions and even chronic heart or lung conditions.

“Up to a week or two before the rash comes, there are warning signs, such as a burning-type pain in a localized part of the body, which is where the rash will eventually break out,” Dr. Bell said. “It sometimes can be just a tingling or itching, but again, it’s localized.”

If caught early enough, a primary care physician can treat shingles with a prescription for an anti-viral medication that shortens the duration of the outbreak, while decreasing the formation of more blisters. Dr. Bell advises that if any concern of shingles arises, a primary care physician should be consulted as soon as possible.

In order to help prevent shingles, a vaccine is available that decreases a person’s chance of getting shingles by 50 percent. The vaccine also decreases the likelihood of getting post-herpetic neuralgia by 65 percent.  The vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for patients aged 50 and older, but not recommended routinely until 60 years old. Because it’s a live virus vaccine, it is not suggested for those with certain immune deficiency conditions. The vaccine is also available to those who have already had shingles.

“A major myth about shingles is that people who have had it before don’t think they can get it again,” said Dr. Bell. “One in four people who have had shingles will have another episode, so the vaccine is still recommended.”

While Dr. Bell notes that the vaccine is expensive, typically costing $230 to $300, costs to individuals will vary based on their health insurance plan. Most insurances pay for at least part of the cost of the vaccine for patients aged 60 and older. Those interested in getting the shingles vaccine can get more information from their primary care physician. If the vaccine is recommended, physicians will either write a prescription to get the vaccine at a pharmacy or have it available at the office.

For more information on shingles and to find a Premier HealthNet primary care physician near you, visit www.premierhealthnet.com/doctor.

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