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Over 50? Get the Vaccine To Avoid Painful Shingles

Shingles is a rash that develops, and then blisters, in a band along one or more nerves in your body. It can be exquisitely painful, and its after-effects might cause discomfort for the rest of your life. If you haven’t gotten the shingles vaccine yet, what are you waiting for?

You have a 20 percent to 25 percent chance of developing shingles in your lifetime. A new study proves that the newest vaccine — the recombinant zoster vaccine (RZV) — will reduce your chance of getting this often-painful condition, and significantly. Better yet, the protection will last for several years at least. There is no good health reason for anyone 50 or older, or younger if immunocompromised, not to get this vaccine.

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. It’s the same exact virus, technically known as varicella-zoster. However, it can harm you more than traditional chickenpox, which presents as a rash that itches, then scabs up and leaves.

Here’s the progression:

  • Your body will never kill the chickenpox virus. Instead, it walls the virus off, puts it into a corner inside one of your spinal nerves, and puts guards around it. Your white blood cells keep it at bay.
  • As you get older, your immune system naturally weakens; in other words, the guards go to sleep.
  • When that happens, the virus can reactivate, emerge and start dividing — inside the nerve. Instead of becoming a skin rash like chicken pox, as shingles it follows a single nerve root around one side of your body.
  • It will most likely show up as a rash that blisters on your chest or belly but can end up anywhere, even on your face. It can go into your eye and blind you. It can also reach your brain and cause encephalitis, which can affect your hearing, paralyze part of your face or even be deadly.
  • If you get shingles, your nerve or nerves will most likely be damaged permanently. It’s like an electrical cord when the outer rubber coating is damaged; when electricity runs through it, the open areas can shock you. This is called postherpetic neuralgia, and up to 18 percent of people — possibly 20 million Americans — who have shingles wind up with this diagnosis. The medication prescribed to suppress that nerve pain also suppresses the nerves in your brain, which can make you foggy, tired and more likely to fall.

It is better just not to get shingles in the first place.

Two Doses of the RZV Vaccine Will Keep Shingles at Bay

The new shingles vaccine was released in the fall of 2017, but it had been tested for a while before that. A major study compared 2 million people — those who were vaccinated and those who weren’t. The results show that people are 80 percent less likely to get shingles if they’ve received the RZV vaccine.

Follow the rules:

  • The new vaccine is given in two parts; you should get the second dose two to six months after the first.
  • You should get it even if you’ve had shingles before.
  • You should get the vaccine even if you received the old shingles vaccine, which is no longer offered in the United States.
  • Do not, however, get the shot while you have shingles.

Receiving the follow-up dose even later than six months after will still benefit you. If you only take one dose, you’ll still have 70 percent protection the first year, 52 percent by year four.

The effectiveness may wane, yet you’ll still be protected. While the old shingles vaccine made it 60 percent less likely that you’d develop shingles, the RZV gives you about 80 percent coverage. The effectiveness decreases about 5 percent each year, but that is still likely to keep shingles away for many years. Other studies have indicated that you’ll continue to be up to 70 percent immune to shingles for 10 years after receiving the vaccine; research is still underway.

Still Questioning? Do the Math

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the new shingles vaccine for everyone 50 and over. It also suggests that people who take steroids to reduce inflammation caused by conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis get vaccinated from age 19 on. This group is only 65 percent protected after the RZV vaccine, but that’s more than they ever were with the old vaccine.

To convince yourself, look at the numbers.

  • The risk of having a severe reaction to the RZV vaccine is one or two per 1 million — extremely rare.
  • The risk of getting shingles in your lifetime, unvaccinated, is one in four or five.
  • That means you have a 20 percent or 25 percent chance of protecting yourself against shingles versus the infinitesimally small risk of having an adverse reaction from the vaccine itself.

Don’t take the gamble. The numbers do not lie.

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