Health Team

Getting the shingles vaccine early can help prevent outbreaks

Posted August 7, 2017 3:37 p.m. EDT
Updated August 7, 2017 6:29 p.m. EDT

About one out of every three Americans will eventually have a painful outbreak of a rash called shingles.

Laura Rice, a reading specialist, had shingles as a young adult. She called it a nightmare.

"You couldn't resist itching it, and then it hurt so much, it hurt twice as much, and you're like, 'Oh, why did I do that,'" she said.

The same virus that causes chickenpox in children is responsible for shingles later in life.

"If you've had chickenpox as a kid, the virus can lie dormant for years," said Dr. Marvin Lipman with Consumer Reports. "Then, as you get older, that virus can break out as a case of shingles."

As a person ages, it is harder for the immune system to fight the virus. A one-time vaccine only offers protection for about five years.

"So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended use of the vaccine in people over the age of 60," Lipman said. "But, under certain circumstances, it is perfectly permissible to use the vaccine in people as young as 50."

The vaccine can be given earlier than age 60 if a person has chronic pain or other conditions that would make it more difficult to tolerate a shingles outbreak and the possible nerve pain that can follow.

Doctors warn: do not assume if you have had an outbreak that you do not need the vaccine. It is not common, but shingles can strike again.

In many cases the shingles vaccine is covered under Medicare, but it may not be. Getting the vaccine at a pharmacy might be somewhat less expensive, though a prescription is needed.