Shingles — scientifically referred to as herpes zoster — is a distressingly painful skin rash precipitated by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. It’s the identical virus responsible for causing chickenpox. Despite the universal vulnerability of individuals who have previously contracted chickenpox, the risk escalates significantly in older adults due to the natural weakening of the immune system with age.
Understanding the importance of shingles vaccinations for this age group is paramount. Vaccination offers a robust defense, significantly reducing the risk of developing shingles. Additionally, for those who still contract the virus post-vaccination, the severity and duration of the symptoms are often markedly diminished. Beyond mitigating the immediate discomfort, the vaccine also lowers the likelihood of postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a chronic nerve pain that can persist long after the rash has subsided.
Understanding Shingles and Its Impact on Older Adults
Typically, Shingles presents as a painful, blistering rash on one side of the body. It can also lead to complications like PHN. Older adults are more susceptible to these complications, significantly affecting their quality of life.
Key Symptoms of Shingles:
- Painful, blistering rash
- Pain, burning, tingling, or numbness
- Fever and headache
- Sensitivity to touch
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
Why Shingles Vaccination Is Crucial for Older Adults
Shingles vaccinations emerge as a critical health measure for older adults. Neglecting vaccination presents considerable risks. Unvaccinated older adults face a higher probability of experiencing not only the severe pain and blistering rash associated with shingles but also potential complications. These complications can include prolonged nerve pain, vision loss (if the rash occurs near the eyes), and a general decline in the quality of life due to the distress and discomfort caused by the condition.
In addition, the disease can lead to hospitalization, especially in those with pre-existing health conditions or severely weakened immune systems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the recombinant zoster vaccine (or RZV, brand name Shingrix) for adults aged 50 and older to reduce the risk of developing shingles and its complications. The vaccine is over 90% effective in preventing shingles and PHN.
Benefits of the Shingles Vaccine:
- High efficacy: Shingrix offers strong protection against shingles and PHN.
- Reduced risk of complications: Vaccination significantly lowers the chances of developing severe complications.
- Long-term protection: The vaccine provides long-lasting immunity, essential for older adults.
- Maintains quality of life: Shingles cause severe pain and discomfort that can disrupt sleep, mood, work, and relationships. The vaccine can prevent this disruption.
Risks of Going Unvaccinated
Not getting vaccinated against shingles poses some risks, especially for adults 60 and over:
- Higher risk of outbreaks: 1 in 2 Americans who live to 85 will develop shingles if they don’t get vaccinated.
- Complications become more likely: Complications increase after age 60 as immunity declines with age. Post-herpetic neuralgia chronic nerve pain occurs two to four times more frequently for unvaccinated persons 60 and older.
- Worse symptoms: Shingles symptoms like acute pain, itching, and fluid-filled blisters often become more severe with age. Unvaccinated older adults experience high viral loads, meaning more extensive rashes and nerve damage.
Addressing Common Concerns About Shingles Vaccination
Some individuals may be concerned about the vaccine’s side effects or efficacy. It’s essential to consult healthcare professionals and refer to trusted medical sources for accurate information.
- Side effects: Most side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, are mild and temporary.
- Allergies: Those with severe allergies to vaccine components should consult their doctor.
- Underlying health conditions: Individuals with certain health conditions should discuss vaccination with their healthcare provider.
Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones From Shingles
Vaccination against shingles is a critical step in protecting the health of older adults. By reducing the risk of this painful condition and its complications, the shingles vaccine significantly improves the quality of life for people 50 or older.
Talk to your primary care provider about getting vaccinated against shingles if you are 50 or older. Vaccinations are also available at Vail Health pharmacies, no appointment is necessary. The CDC recommends all healthy adults 50 and older get the Shingrix vaccine, including those who were already vaccinated with Zostavax or had a prior case of shingles. Getting vaccinated can prevent you from developing this painful and potentially dangerous disease.
This article was reviewed by Suzanne Torris, MS, RN, FNP.