Doctors encourage boomers to get new shingles vaccine

30 percent of U.S. adults will get shingles over the course of their lifetimes, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several years ago, during a time of stress, Seattle cabinet maker Michael Barton developed a case of shingles. [See related video.]

 A sensitive area developed around his armpit and shoulder blade, on the skin and underneath it, he said. Even now, years later, the area still tingles.

This is why Dr. Seth Cohen, a UW Medicine infectious disease expert, and other medical professionals are stressing that everyone over 50 years of age should get the new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which came on the market this year.

Shingles is caused by the varicella virus, which also causes chickenpox. The virus remains in your body's nervous system and can flare up as you age, causing skin rashes, nerve pain and inflammation. It also can affect the eye and the brain, said Cohen. But usually, shingles appears around the rib cage, near the spinal cord, and can grow to about the width of your hand, he said.

“If you’ve had chicken pox as a child, the virus goes to sleep, and stays asleep until you’re about 50 or 60, when it reactivates,” he said. About 20 percent of the patients experience postherpetic neuralgia, or consistent nerve pain after the rash and blisters disappear, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people over 50 get the vaccine, which prevents shingles in about 95 percent of people, including people who have had shingles before. The old vaccine, called Zostavax, was only 50 percent effective and was only recommended for those patients 60 or older. The new vaccine is 91 to 97 percent effective, depending on your age group, Cohen said.

Another plus for the vaccine is that patients with compromised immune systems can usually take the vaccine since it’s  not an activated or live virus.

“So cancer patients or transplant patients can consider taking this virus,” Cohen said.

In all about 30 percent of adults (in the US that adds up to 75 million) will get shingles over the course of their lifetimes, according the CDC. Before the chickenpox vaccine was developed in 1995, about 4 million children a year contracted the disease. In fact, many experts believe that 95 percent of Americans 40 years of age and older have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember contracting it.

If shingles occur, they usually erupt in redness and blisters and then scab over. It takes seven to ten days for the outbreak to fade away completely, he said. The virus is only contagious during the blister stage the CDC reports.

Singles made headlines in April when the creator of the Broadway musical "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda, contracted the disease.

There are very few side effects from the new vaccine, said Cohen.

“It’s been very well tolerated,” he said. “There might be some irritation around the local site, and there might be some stomach upset in a few cases. But getting shingles is much worse. It’s better to get the shot.”

The vaccine consists of two shots, given about four to six months apart. The shots in total cost about $280, but insurances have slowly been adding the vaccine to their policies under preventive care. A prescription is generally not needed, but check with your insurance company and primary care physician for any specific concerns.

For Barton’s part, he can’t wait to get the new vaccine.

If you would like to interview Dr. Cohen on the new shingles vaccine, contact Barbara Clements, media relations manager, at 206-221-6706 or 

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