For most of us born before about 1990, a case of chickenpox was a childhood right of passage. Every so often, the virus would make its way through schools and daycares. Newly exposed children would spend a terribly itchy week missing class while moms scolded them to stop scratching.
But all that fun ended in 1995 when the varicella (the virus that causes chickenpox) vaccine became available in the U.S. Prior to that time there were about four million cases each year. We usually don’t think of chickenpox as a serious disease, but chickenpox caused 10,500 to 13,000 hospitalizations and 100 to 150 deaths every year prior to the vaccine.
Since the varicella vaccine has become a standard childhood vaccine, it has prevented 3.5 million cases, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths each year.
Fantastic! Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
But of course it’s not really the end.
Back to those of us who got chickenpox and not the vaccine. We are now immune to chickenpox, but the varicella virus is sitting dormant in our nerve cells. It can become reactivated to cause a new condition known as shingles or herpes zoster.
When the virus reactivates to cause shingles, it typically causes a painful, itchy rash of blisters. The blisters follow the path of a single nerve serving a defined area of skin, called a dermatome. This can be anywhere on the body but often affects one side of the chest or the face. Shingles may also cause fever, fatigue, and headache.
Some people can develop the pain without ever developing the rash, and for some, the pain may persist after the rash is cleared. This persistent pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), and it can be very difficult to manage. Other complications include vision loss if the rash occurs too close to the eyes, neurological problems, and skin infections.
But just like the varicella vaccine caused a dramatic decrease in cases of chickenpox, we now have a new vaccine that is around 95 percent effective in preventing shingles and PHN.
The CDC recommends that individuals over 50 receive this two-dose shingles vaccine, called Shingrix. The two doses are administered in the upper arm two to six months apart.
Even if you’ve had shingles before, Shingrix can help prevent a recurrence. And if you’ve had shingles, you are probably pretty sure you don’t want to go through that again.
There are a couple of cases where Shingrix isn’t the best choice for you:
- you currently have shingles,
- you are breastfeeding or pregnant,
- you have a blood test that shows no immunity to varicella, (get the chickenpox vaccine instead), or
- you have allergies to the vaccine ingredients or the vaccine itself.
Thanks to the chickenpox vaccine, younger people will probably never have to worry about getting chickenpox or shingles. But for those of us who’ve seen a few more moons, the shingles vaccine can help prevent shingles. You may have walked uphill, in the snow, both ways to school. And you may have gotten your chickenpox immunity the old-fashioned way. But why not do what the kids are doing and skip the shingles? Some things really are better left in the past.
To talk to a doctor about the shingles vaccine in Hunt County or any other health concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us for an appointment.