The condition is more than skin deep.
If you’ve ever had shingles, you know the feeling of that painful rash all too well. And if you haven’t had it, chances are you will — about one in three people in the U.S. is likely to get shingles at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The good news is that the risk of developing shingles goes down sharply in those who get the vaccine, and luckily, there’s a new one called Shingrix that’s supposed to be more potent than the previous version. According to the CDC, the shot is said to be more than 90 percent effective against shingles.
“Even if you have had shingles before, you should get the Shingrix vaccine to help prevent a potential outbreak of the disease in the future,” Shoshana Marmon, M.D., tells Katie Couric Media.
But the latest vaccine isn’t widely available to all Americans just yet — here’s why, plus the possible side effects.
What are shingles?
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection that stems from the same virus that causes chickenpox. (So if you had that scratchy, blister-like rash as a child, chances are you’ll get shingles as an adult.) It’s also characterized by a painful rash that typically appears along one side of the body or face, such as the eyes, which can be dangerous because it can lead to blindness if left untreated. But this skin condition may not always be obvious at first. Pain is usually the first telltale sign, along with fever, chills, and tingling sensations.
“Shingles does not always involve a rash initially — many patients present with either pain or itching that is localized to one location,” says Lauren Eckert Ploch, M.D. “Sometimes, the classic blistering rash occurs after symptoms start, but occasionally the area is just red and swollen.”
But most people don’t typically get shingles until their 50s or later because the virus has a tendency to lay dormant in our bodies for decades. This has to do with the fact that the virus tends to preserve itself over time and then is only reactivated when someone ages or gets sick, according to Maria Nagel, M.D.
“The shingles virus doesn’t need to replicate and use energy. It just infects the host, then it just goes completely silent decades at a time,” Dr. Nagel, a neurologist who studies shingles, tells Katie Couric Media. “And then when it detects that there’s something wrong with the host immunity, it reactivates so that it could spread to the next generation.”
While it’s true that shingles aren’t life-threatening, they can be extremely uncomfortable and could even lead to more serious complications. The most common one is postherpetic neuralgia, which causes long-term nerve pain. The virus also isn’t limited to certain parts of your body — Dr. Nagel says it can travel along your nerve fibers to every single part of the organ system, including your brain, and cause a stroke if left untreated.
What is the new shingles shot?
First approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017, Shingrix is now the only shingles vaccine currently recommended by the CDC. The formula is generally administered in the upper arm via two shots spaced out between two to six months — and you’re going to make sure you want to get both doses from your doctor or nearest pharmacy.
“It’s important to get the second dose because that’s where we see this very high level of protection against shingles — this disease can be very devastating” says Leonard Friedland, vice president and director of Scientific Affairs and Public Health at GSK Vaccines, which manufactures Shingrix.
At this point, Friedland says there are no recommendations to get subsequent doses after you’ve completed that two-dose series, but he added that the vaccine maker will continue to monitor it and work with federal health officials. “If the data suggests that there needs to be additional doses, then we’ll work with the Centers for Disease Control and come up with updated recommendations,” he tells Katie Couric Media. “But currently, we have data out to 10 years with protection and we’re continuing to follow that.”
But the latest vaccine shouldn’t be confused with the old shingles vaccine, Zostavax, which is no longer available in the U.S. As it turns out, the shot wasn’t nearly as effective as health officials initially thought, and its effectiveness, which was only around 51 percent, was found to wane significantly three years after the vaccine was given.
Shingrix, on the other hand, has much more fighting power. It’s also proven to be 97 percent effective in preventing shingles in adults 50 to 69 years old and 91 percent effective in those 70 years and older with healthy immune systems. Like with any vaccine, there’s still a chance you could get the skin condition, but at least data shows that the latest vaccine offers up to ten years of strong protection and prevents the onset of postherpetic neuralgia.
Who can get the shingles vaccine?
Shingrix is only approved for people who are at least 50 years of age because that’s the main age group for which it has undergone extensive testing. There’s an important exception: Adults 19 and older with weakened immune systems also are eligible for the vaccine.
The new vaccine has some marked improvements. For instance, those with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis weren’t previously advised to get the Zostavax shot because it contained a live virus and put them at risk for developing an infection. But this isn’t the case with the Shingrix vaccine, which instead uses viral proteins that our immune systems can act against if we become infected.
“Many people were not able to get Zostavax because it was a live vaccine, so anyone that was immunocompromised due to disease or medications was not a candidate for Zostavax,” Dr. Ploch tells Katie Couric Media. “But Shingrix is not a live vaccine, so it’s safe for immunocompromised people to receive.”
Still, the CDC notes that the latest shingles vaccine isn’t recommended for people who’ve had a severe allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine, those who currently have shingles, and those who are pregnant.
Are there any side effects from the shingles vaccine?
Friedland says the the predominant side effects include “injection site pain,” where you might experience some redness and swelling. Others “may also feel tired, have muscle pain, a headache, fever, stomach pain, or nausea,” according to Dr. Marmon. But luckily, these symptoms normally go away within one to two days.
The only potential major side effect is a serious nervous system disorder known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which some have reported getting after receiving their doses of the Shingrix vaccine. That said, Dr. Marmom says this is rare, and the shot’s benefits far outweigh the risks.
“While no medication or vaccine is ever 100 percent safe and effective, the FDA maintains that the benefits of vaccination with Shingrix continue to outweigh its risks,” she says. “The typically minor and temporary side effects are considerably less severe than the potential impact of shingles, making it the correct choice for most adults over 50.”