DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: What can you tell me about the shingles vaccine? I just turned 65 and have been thinking about getting vaccinated, but would like to know how effective it is and how it's covered by Medicare.
Afraid of Needles
DEAR AFRAID: Older adults who get the shingles vaccine can actually cut their risk of getting the painful condition in half, and those that do happen to get it are likely to have a milder case if they've been inoculated. Here's what else you should know about the shingles vaccine, along with how it's covered by Medicare.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a burning, blistering, often excruciating skin rash that affects about 1 million Americans each year. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes it. What happens is the chickenpox virus that most people get as kids never leaves the body. It hides in the nerve cells near the spinal cord and, for some people, emerges later in the form of shingles.
In the U.S., one out of every three people will develop shingles during their lifetime. While anyone who's had chickenpox can get shingles, it most commonly occurs in people age 60 and older, along with people who have weakened immune systems. But you can't catch shingles from someone else.
Early signs of the disease include pain, itching or tingling before a blistering rash appears several days later, and can last up to four weeks. The rash typically occurs on one side of the body, often as a band of blisters that extends from the middle of your back around to the breastbone. It can also appear above an eye or on the side of the face or neck.
In addition to the rash, more than one-third who get shingles go on to develop severe nerve pain that can last for months or even years.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 60 and older should get a one-time shingles vaccination — called Zostavax. Even if you've already had shingles, you still need the vaccination because recurring cases are possible. See zostavax.com or call (877) 974-4645 for more information or to locate a vaccine provider in your area.