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A sure shot to prevent shingles

Shingrix, a new vaccine, is more than 90% effective — and highly recommended

Louise was 70 when she was diagnosed with shingles, a rash illness caused by the same virus that produces chickenpox. She had been complaining for a few days of pain and itching on the right side of her face. When an irritating rash and blisters broke out, she immediately scheduled an appointment to see her primary care physician, who made the diagnosis. 

The doctor prescribed a medication used to treat viral infections. She also suggested that Louise take an over-the-counter pain reliever and apply calamine lotion on the rash to avoid the itching. 

A month later, the symptoms were gone, but Louise’s doctor made one more strong recommendation: Get a new FDA-approved vaccine called Shingrix, which is proven to be more than 90% effective at preventing shingles and the long-term nerve pain it can create.

“Shingrix is much more effective than the previous shingles vaccine,” said Elyse Erlich, MD, a Northeast Medical Group internal medicine physician in Stamford. Dr. Erlich was referring to Zostavax, which was only 51% effective in elderly patients such as Louise. In fact, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer recommends Zostavax, according to Dr. Erlich

Recommended guidelines by the CDC are simple: If you are 50 or older, get Shingrix. Get it if you’ve had shingles, because you can get the disease more than once. Moreover, even if you have had the Zostavax, the Shingrix is recommended since it is much more effective and provides lifelong immunity.

“You will get two injected doses of Shingrix, two to six months apart,” Dr. Erlich explained. Your primary care provider (PCP) may have the vaccine, and many pharmacies carry it and don’t require a prescription. Either way, call your health insurance provider ahead of time to see if your policy will pay for Shingrix. Most insurance plans do.

While any needle injection can be painful for a couple of days, with the Shingrix shots, given in your upper arm, you may experience some side effects for a few days. “About 25% of patients get some redness, swelling or a rash at the injection site,” Dr. Erlich said. Other side effects may include tiredness, muscle pain, headache, low-grade fever, stomach pain or nausea.

Considering how painful shingles can be, and how long the pain can linger, those temporary side effects are worth it. Here are some other facts about shingles: 

  • Nearly one in three American will develop shingles. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk, and the likelihood increases with age. 
  • About 1 in 10 people who get shingles develop nerve pain that lasts for months, years or even a lifetime after the rash goes away.
  • Shingles may lead to blindness, pneumonia, hearing problems, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.

The bottom line, says Dr. Erlich, is that unless your PCP advises otherwise, “there’s nothing to stop you from getting Shingrix.”

To find a Northeast Medical Group physician and talk about whether the Shingrix vaccine is right for you, call 855-636-4637.