The Shingles virus is a common problem, especially for seniors 60 years and older. At any age this is not a virus you want to catch, so you must be aware of everything there is to know about it. It's better to be safe than sorry, right?
What Is The Shingles Virus?
The Shingles virus is one of the most common viral infections in the population – in fact, roughly half the population will show symptoms by the time they're 80.
Shingles comes from the varicella-zoster virus, the same disease strain that causes chickenpox, particularly in young children.
Unlike most viruses, however, it's not something you're going to catch from someone else – instead, shingles occurs when the virus reactivates within your body. This is most common when someone's immune system has weakened (mainly from age), which is why it's most common in seniors.
If you're asking “is Shingles contagious?”, the answer is no. You can't spread Shingles to others, regardless of how severe your case is. However, you can spread the varicella-zoster virus itself, and that can infect people and cause chickenpox in people who haven't already experienced it.
Most people will only get Shingles once, and direct symptoms usually vanish within one month. Unfortunately, lingering nerve pain from Shingles can last for weeks or months beyond the disease. Which is why it's best to get treatment, or try to avoid getting it in the first place.
Who Should Get The Shingles Vaccine?
Most people over the age of 60 should get the Shingles vaccine. The only currently-approved vaccine is Zostavax.
The vaccination lasts for about five years. The CDC does not currently recommend a schedule for the Shingles vaccination for anyone younger than 60, but every five years starting at age 50 is appropriate for most people.
Who Should Not Get The Shingles Vaccine?
Unfortunately, certain groups should not get the Shingles vaccine. These include:
- Anyone who has significant allergic reactions to any of the components of the vaccine, notably including neomycin and gelatin
- Anyone who has a weakened immune system (from drug therapy, cancer treatment, cancer affecting the immune system, or any disease like HIV/AIDS)
- Women who are, or who may become, pregnant in the four weeks after getting the vaccine
- Anyone who is currently ill
Do not get the Shingles vaccine if you fall into any of these categories. If you are still concerned about getting Shingles, talk to your doctor and ask if there is any point at which the Shingles vaccine will be appropriate for you.
If you have never been tested for allergies, it may be best to have that done starting around age 50. Doing this will help your doctors know if any vaccines are dangerous to you, and it's easier to check for a problem beforehand than it is to treat a major allergic reaction.
How Well Does The Shingles Vaccine Work?
The CDC reports that the Shingles vaccine has a 51% success rate for reducing the risk of developing this disease. Reports also note that the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia (pain in the place where shingles rashes were present) drops by 67%. The vaccine is less effective on people aged 70 and older, but still recommended.
Researchers are working to make the Shingles vaccine more effective. The goal is to create herd immunity, where about 95% of the population is immune to a given disease. This can prevent the spread of a disease and reduce the number of people who suffer from it.
What Are The Side Effects Of The Shingles Vaccine?
Like many vaccines, there are several side-effects that the Shingles vaccine can cause.
Approximately 1 in 3 people suffer mild irritation around the site of the injection. About 1 in 70 report a slight headache. There are no severe side effects associated with the vaccine.
Also, it is safe to be around other people once you've had the vaccine. There is currently no documentation of infecting other people with chickenpox after having had the vaccine – although, since 99+% of the population has already had chickenpox, it is difficult to test for this sort of thing. Nevertheless, this is one of the side effects of shingles vaccine not considered to be a problem.
Nevertheless, people who develop any rashes are encouraged to keep them covered.
Any reactions beyond this – including fast heartbeat, dizziness, weakness, difficulty breathing, hives, or swelling – in the minutes to hours after the vaccination are a sign of a severe allergic reaction. If you see someone experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
Paying For The Shingles Vaccine
As a senior if you have medicare or medicaid most likely you will not have to worry about the cost of the vaccine itself. Regardless, it's always nice to know how the expense will be taken care of.
Medicare Part D covers the Shingles vaccine cost, but usually does not pay it in full. Some plans require copays, while others will reimburse you at a later time. Medicare Part B does not cover this vaccine.
Medicaid sometimes covers this vaccine. Contact your insurer for more information.
Private Insurance usually covers the cost of Shingles vaccine, but much like Medicaid, it's possible your plan does not. Coverage is less common in private insurance for people 50-59 than it is for people 60 and older.
The out-of-pocket cost for Zostavax is usually between $200 and $300, depending on where you get it. Vaccination assistance programs may provide Zostavax to you at no charge if you have limited income and cannot afford it. Visit Merck's page on this program or talk to your local pharmacy for more information.
Danger Of The Shingles Virus In The Elderly
The main danger of Shingles isn't the disease itself – the effects are short-term, full recovery is common, and it's almost never as dangerous as the flu or other common infections.
However, seniors often experience persistent pain after having Shingles, and this can significantly reduce your quality of life for as long as the pain lasts, usually weeks to months. Aches and pains are common with age, so adding any more suffering on top of that can be distinctly unpleasant. Being vaccinated helps to reduce the number of seniors living with pain while simultaneously making the population as a whole healthier.