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Shingles vaccine: An ounce of prevention

​​​Shingles is the reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Most adults, who were exposed to chickenpox as a child, are at risk of developing shingles later in life.

One out of three people over 50 will develop the painful condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting the shingles vaccine can provide an ounce of prevention.

"Most adults have been exposed to the chickenpox, because they had the virus as children," said J. Barbara Mroz, M.D.​, an internal medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Minocqua Center. "This makes them more susceptible to the shingles virus. The shingles vaccine is approved and recommended for those over age 50."

Shingles are different from chickenpox.

"The shingles virus usually affects only one side of the body, specifically one nerve and one dermatome," Dr. Mroz said. A dermatome is an area of the skin with sensory nerves derived from a single spinal nerve root.

"With chickenpox the pox is nodular, larger and quite irregular," Dr. Mroz said. "Nagging, bad pain is the hallmark of a shingles outbreak. A red rash may or may not appear. The main problem with shingles is the complications that can result without early diagnosis and treatment."

Nerve pain from undiagnosed shingles can go on for months or years. If the virus moves into the eyes, permanent eye damage can occur. Both are good reasons to get the vaccine.

"If you are immune-compromised because you are undergoing cancer treatment or have AIDS, complications could include more than one nerve," Dr. Mroz said. "If you or a family member are preparing to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, or are in anyway immune-compromised, it's a good idea to get the vaccine and get it soon enough that it has time to take effect."

The shingles vaccine is a weakened (attenuated) live vaccine. For this reason, a month is needed between getting this vaccine and getting any other live vaccine.

"It's not a vaccine that you can get at the same time as getting your flu shot or the pneumonia vaccine," Dr. Mroz said.

If you get shingles, antiviral medication is available to treat the condition. It's been proven effective if taken within the first 72 hours.

"Timing is crucial," Dr. Mroz said. "If you think you have shingles, it's advisable to seek care without delay. An outbreak on a Friday should not be left until Monday to be seen by your provider. Treatment may become ineffective and the chance for long-term complications increases."

Sometimes skin discoloration occurs after shingles, and it's possible to have shingles more than once.

"If you've never had chickenpox or have had shingles, the shingles vaccine is still recommended," Dr. Mroz said. "The vaccine is safe."