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Shingles Vaccine: Expert Q&A

Never Too Late to Seek Protection Against 'Debilitating' Virus
By Scott Harris
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Shingles can make everyday tasks -- from getting dressed to getting into bed -- a painful proposition. The culprit behind this agonizing rash, which is especially common in older people, is the same virus responsible for another common but debilitating condition: chicken pox.

"Most of us never get rid of the chicken pox virus," William Schaffner, MD, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, tells WebMD. "It lies dormant like a bear in a cave during winter. When a person gets shingles, the virus has reawakened."

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Fortunately, a vaccine is available that greatly reduces the risk of shingles. Schaffner, who is also a professor in Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's infectious diseases division and chair of the school’s department of preventive medicine, spoke with WebMD about getting protected.

Which adults need the shingles vaccine?

The shingles vaccine is recommended for everyone age 50 or older who is not profoundly immunocompromised, which means their immune system is functioning and they have not recently had treatments like chemotherapy or high doses of steroids.

When do I need to get it, and how often?

"It is a one-shot vaccine. Coverage is available through Medicare, but it can be tough to get approval. You have to work the system a little."

I already have shingles. Is it too late for the vaccine to help me?

"No. It can still be very effective, although it is recommended that you wait for up to a year after the episode to get the vaccine."

What are the risks and benefits of this vaccine?

"Shingles is not life-threatening per se, but it can be pretty debilitating. If it involves your face or eyes, it can threaten your eyesight. Even after the rash abates, you can be left with pain in that section of the body that can be set off by even trivial stimuli, such as the touch of a shirt against the skin. Sometimes it can prevent people from leaving their house. The older we get, the greater the risk. If you survive to age 80, you have a 25% to 50% chance of having had shingles."

"This is an extraordinarily safe vaccine. A few percentage points of people get chicken pox blisters around the site, but they are harmless and they go away."

Is there any reason I shouldn’t get it?

"Only if you have a compromised immune system."

Reviewed on January 18, 2011

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