The era when chickenpox was a childhood rite of passage seems far behind us. Before the chickenpox vaccine, millions of Americans got the infection each year, and thousands had serious complications. Chickenpox is now a relatively rare occurrence—but the varicella zoster virus that causes it is still in our midst. Today, the virus more often causes shingles symptoms, which still carry serious health risks.
The chickenpox vaccine became available in 1995, which means that most US adults had chickenpox as children. Once you've had chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus remains in your body, even after you've recovered. In some cases, it can get reactivated later in life, causing an illness called shingles.
Fortunately, you can lower your risk of developing this illness with a one-dose vaccine called Zostavax.
The shingles vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for people aged 50 years and older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for all adults aged 60 and older but does not have a recommendation for routine use of the vaccine in people 50 through 59 years old. Adults aged 50 through 59 years who have questions about the vaccine should discuss the risks and benefits with a healthcare provider. You may also want to check whether your insurance plan covers the vaccination before getting the shot, particularly if you are outside the CDC's recommended age bracket. You can get the Zostavax vaccine at your local Rite Aid Pharmacy or at your doctor's office.
Stop in for the vaccine as soon as possible if you're in the recommended age bracket. Avoiding this painful infection is well worth finding time for a quick shot in your arm.
Anyone who has had chickenpox in the past is at risk of developing shingles. In fact, according to the CDC, about one-third of US adults aged 60 or older will develop the condition at some point. By age 80, half of us will develop the illness.
A number of factors can cause the varicella zoster virus to reactivate. Shingles is more likely to occur in older people because:
Your immunity is lower. As you age, your immune system weakens. Certain medications and health conditions that are more common in older adults can also wear down your immunity, giving the virus an opportunity to reactivate.
Stress takes a toll. According to the National Institutes of Health, stress may play a role in the development of shingles. It may not cause outbreaks, but there does appear to be a correlation between people who've recently encountered stressful events and occurrences of this infection.
Shingles symptoms typically begin without a rash, making it hard to recognize in the early stages.
One to five days before a rash appears, people experience a burning, tingling pain. The pain can be intense and usually affects a small area on your torso, such as a section of your back, rib cage, or waist.
Other symptoms that may develop during this early phase may include headache, sensitivity to light, fatigue, and an upset stomach.
One to five days after pain begins, a visible rash often appears.
A typical shingles rash looks like a red "stripe" on one side of your body. The rash usually affects your torso, but can also appear on your lower body, on one side of your face, or on one eye.
Fluid-filled blisters develop next and may seem to come in waves for several days. These blisters then begin to crust over.
Pain usually continues during this stage and may become more intense. The sores can also be very itchy.
Not everyone with this infection develops a rash. This makes the condition harder to diagnose, but your doctor can confirm that you have shingles with a blood test.
While shingles cannot be passed from one person to another, people who have never had chickenpox can get infected with the varicella zoster virus through direct contact with the fluid from the blisters caused by the illness. You're contagious from the time blisters start to appear until your blisters completely scab over, which can take two to four weeks.
While you're contagious, take these CDC-recommended steps to protect those around you:
Avoid contact with vulnerable people in your life. This includes premature or low-birth-weight infants, pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, and anyone who has a weakened immune system due to other health conditions or medications.
Practice good hygiene. Avoid touching your rash and wash your hands often. The CDC also suggests keeping your rash covered.
Shingles can cause long-term complications, including chronic pain, bacterial skin infections, problems with hearing and balance, and vision loss (if it occurs in or around your eyes).
Call your doctor right away if you think you might have shingles. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, treatments can speed up healing and decrease the risk of complications when started as early as possible
Thanks to modern medicine, this part is easy! You only have to go as far as your local Rite Aid and ask for the Zostavax vaccine.
Zostavax doesn't guarantee you won't get shingles, but it significantly reduces your risk of contracting the illness and of complications from the infection. The vaccine is recommended for adults aged 60 and older, whether or not you've ever had chickenpox.
Talk with your doctor or your Rite Aid Pharmacist if you have any questions about shingles or the Zostavax vaccine.
By Nancy Burtis Boudreau
Mayo Clinic, Shingles
WebMD, Shingles: Topic Overview
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About Shingles
National Institutes of Health, About Shingles
National Vaccine Information Center, Chickenpox
These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise, or medication regime.