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Shingles Vaccine

Posted November 21, 2012 in Advice Column

You may have heard about the shingles vaccine, Zostavax, but is it right for you?

Most health professionals agree that if you’re 60 years of age or older, it’s probably a go, and sooner rather than later. Because one bout of shingles doesn’t mean you’re immune to a second or third attack and because the likelihood of getting shingles increases with age as your immune system becomes less effective, it’s a good idea to look into the vaccine.

If you’ve ever had a case of the chicken pox you are at risk of getting shingles, an extremely painful illness caused by the reactivation of the dormant chicken pox virus in your body. Shingles is characterized by a headache and followed by a skin rash, typically on one side of the body or face. The rash then turns into clusters of fluid-filled blisters which will crust over. The virus travels along nerve pathways in the body and can cause inflammation and damage.

Currently, less than 15 percent of all adults older than 60 have taken the initiative to get the vaccine, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The  vaccine is most effective for people age 60 – 69 years old but will provide some protection for people in older groups. If you do get shingles after being vaccinated, it will likely be shorter and much less troublesome. Protection from the vaccine is expected to last at least six years, but may stick around longer in your system. Currently, studies are being conducted to determine a more exact amount of time that it will protect you from the shingles virus.

The vaccine is not recommended for people who have ever had a severe reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin or any other component of the shingles vaccine. Persons with a weakened immune system due to medications, illness or pregnancy are also not advised to seek the vaccine. The shingles vaccine is not meant to treat active shingles or post-herpatic neuralgia (pain after the rash is gone) once it develops.

Furthermore, you may need to plan ahead if you’re seeking the vaccine. Physicians don’t stock the vaccine, which has to be stored in a freezer, but they can write an order for it which would then be filled at your local pharmacy.  Medicare Part B does not cover its cost. Private insurance policies will vary. Co-pays for Medicare Part D, which will cover the vaccine, are likely to be in the $60 – $80 range.

Side effects of the vaccine include headache and mild injection-site reactions, which typically are short-lived. Some people may experience more serious allergic reactions such as wheezing or difficulty breathing or swallowing.  However, a study published by the Journal of Internal Medicine of nearly 200,000 recipients of the vaccine found it to be “generally safe and well tolerated.”

Information provided by Kristen Sheston, assistant manager/activity director, The Continental at St. Joseph’s, 19999 St. Joseph Drive, Centerville, (641) 437-1999.

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