Shingles is a serious and very common condition. As we age, our immune system starts to decline and people older than 50 are at increased risk of developing this viral infection. With approximately 1 million cases of shingles in the United States each year, nearly half of all cases are seen in those 60 and older.
What is shingles?
When people have chickenpox as a child, the varicella zoster virus lays dormant in their nerves, held in check by the individual’s immune system. The virus may stay dormant forever, or in the case of one in every three people, it eventually reappears in the form of shingles. This viral infection is characterized by a red skin rash that can cause pain and burning, and usually appears as a stripe of blisters on one side of the body, typically on the torso, neck or face.
Most cases clear up within two to three weeks and rarely occur more than once in the same person. Since the illness is so prevalent, however, a new vaccine was developed and released in December 2017 called Shingrix.
Why the change?
According to research, Shingrix appears to be 97 percent effective at preventing shingles compared to the previous vaccine, Zostavax, which prevented 51 percent of cases. The most exciting aspect of this new vaccine is that it is a non-live, recumbent vaccine instead of a live attenuated vaccine, like Zostavax. What does this mean for you, the patient? Those who have been immunocompromised for whatever reason, whether from chronic disease, chemotherapy, etcetera, previously could not receive the shingles vaccine. With Shingrix, these individuals may now be able to have protection from shingles. Studies are still ongoing for those immunocompromised patients, so be sure and discuss options with your doctor.
What’s the difference?
Here are of few differences between the two vaccines. Zostavax is a “one-and-done” injection, meaning you only received one injection and you did not need any more. The Shingrix vaccine requires two injections separated by two to six months. Additionally, it is recommended that patients start receiving Shingrix at age 50 instead of waiting until age 60 to receive Zostavax.
Preliminary evidence from research of Shingrix shows that the new vaccine’s immunity may last longer than Zostavax. If you have already received Zostavax, the current recommendation is to wait at least eight weeks between injections of the two vaccines. In the clinical trials, patients did experience some side effects. The most common side effect, as seen with any vaccine injection, was soreness and pain at the site of the injection. Other common side effects included muscle aches, fatigue and headache that resolved after two to three days.
Prior to receiving Shingrix, even from a local pharmacy, it is recommended that you discuss this with your doctor to be sure you are a candidate for the vaccine.
Most insurers, as well as Medicare Part D will eventually cover the cost of Shingrix. However, it is a good idea to check with your insurance company prior to receiving the vaccine.
If you have questions, or for more information on the shingles virus and other health related topics, visit mountnittany.org.
Candace Maurer is a certified registered nurse practitioner with Mount Nittany Physician Group Family Medicine at its Mount Nittany Health — Penns Valley location.