Health Team

Shingles vaccine can lower risk in elderly

Posted October 6, 2015 10:07 a.m. EDT

— Shingles, also known as the Varicella Zoster Virus, is an extremely painful skin condition. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, each year, there are an estimated 1 million cases in the U.S.

Shingles is an itchy, blistering rash on the skin caused when the dormant chicken-pox virus reactivates in the body, typically much later in life.

Ninety-nine percent of people age 40 and over have had chicken pox as a child, whether they remember it or not. Once the chicken pox virus goes dormant, it embeds itself in the nerve root. When it becomes active again, it works its way to the surface of the skin causing a painful rash.

The vaccine called Zostavax is proven to lower the risk of shingles by 50 percent in the elderly population. About half of all cases of shingles occur in men and women 60 years of age or older. That's the group the CDC recommends get the vaccine.

The shingles vaccine has been approved for the 50-59 year old age group by the CDC. The 60-year-old recommendation for the vaccine may have more to do with when insurance companies will pay for it. It’s important to ask your doctor for further information.

Shingles can be treated with an anti-viral medication like Valtrex and topical antimicrobial creams. However, the best cure is prevention.

Some are at higher risk of shingles because they have compromised immune systems due to certain cancers such as leukemia or lymphoma. HIV patients are also at higher risk due to a weakened immune system. Doctors are also concerned about people who receive immune suppressive drugs, such as steroids or anti-rejection drugs after organ transplantation.

Shingles is not transmitted unless you have direct contact with the blister fluid, which might transmit the chicken pox virus. For example, a nurse cleaning the wet blisters may have some risk. However, without direct contact to these lesions, it will not be transmitted.

So, going to work, siting at a desk or the movies is not a problem. However, it’s important to be careful with any close contact to those who are immuno-suppressed or babies.