Q: If I had chickenpox as a child, will I get shingles?
A: One in three people will get shingles during their lifetime, and about half of those cases will occur after age 60.
Why? Because shingles occurs when the chickenpox virus you contracted at an early age is reactivated.
Even if you don’t remember having chickenpox as a child, you probably did. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 99 percent of people age 40 and older have had chickenpox.
This means that a large percentage of our population is at risk for having shingles later in life.
The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles, also known as varicella-zoster. It implants itself in the sensory ganglia (the deep portion of our nerves) close to the spinal cord after the chickenpox is contracted.
Most of the time, the virus does not cause any issues until an illness or stressful event occurs, decreasing our immune system and allowing the virus to appear in the form of a skin rash.
The rash usually occurs in a specific nerve distribution on one side of the body. Most commonly, the rash comes up on the chest or stomach, but can appear anywhere on the body.
The most dangerous area is the face, especially around the eyes. The chance of having shingles increases with age. The worst part of having shingles is not the rash, but the nerve pain related to it.
Known as postherpetic neuralgia, the pain can begin before the rash appears and may last months to years.
Preventing the pain is usually a bigger concern then getting rid of the rash.
Q: I am 60 years old. Should I get the shingles vaccine?
A: Currently, the only tool available to prevent shingles is the vaccine called Zostavax.
The FDA has approved this vaccine for those aged 50 years and older, but the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends beginning vaccination at age 60. Most insurance plans will not cover the vaccine until age 60.
The vaccine is a live virus and should only be given to people with healthy immune systems. It is recommended for everyone age 60 or older (or 50 and older, which is also acceptable), regardless of your history of shingles.
The vaccine has only a 51 percent chance of preventing shingles, but it has a 67 percent chance of reducing postherpetic neuralgia. Anyone who has suffered pain from shingles will appreciate those odds.
Ask your healthcare provider if the vaccine is right for you.
Dr. William E. Kyle is an internal medicine physician at Memorial Health University Physicians – Legacy Center in Okatie