Virtually all adults over age 40 have had chickenpox, a virus with a hyphenated name (Varicella-Zoster) to reflect its double-whammy outbreak.
We call it chickenpox (Varicella) the first time around, and shingles (Zoster) when it occurs a second time. It’s in the herpes family of viruses, and like genital herpes, the Varicella-Zoster virus can hide in your nerves for the rest of your life. However, a little weakening of your immune system can let it out.
The virus will follow the nerve and show up as painful tiny blisters on only one side of your body. These blisters contain the chickenpox virus and can transmit chickenpox to anyone not vaccinated.
Shingles also has a nasty habit of producing long-term nerve pain where the rash (blisters) occurred – post hermetic neuralgia. The pain is often severe.
To keep this from happening, your immune system needs to be reminded to protect you from the hidden chickenpox virus. A vaccine is the best way to remind your immune system.
There’s been a shingles vaccine available for 10 years, called Zostavax (developed and sold by Merck). This reduces shingles attacks by 50% to 70%.
Now there is a new vaccine – Shingrix by GlaxoSmithKline – that was just approved. It appears to be even more effective than Zostavax in preventing shingles, reportedly up to 97%. Perhaps more importantly, both vaccines prevent post herpetic neuralgia 90% of the time.
What if you have already been vaccinated with Zostavax? The data shows you can safely still get the new Shingrix vaccine for significant added protection.
Adults think of vaccinating their kids more often than themselves. But, being an adult is a lot less fun with post-herpetic neuralgia. It’s a condition that’s definitely worth avoiding.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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