© 2021 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

For those over 60, vaccine is best prevention for shingles

It's one of the most painful syndromes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say one in three Americans will get it eventually and those over 60 should be vaccinated. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. Pritish Tosh, assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic,  about shingles and how to prevent it.

Lorraine Rapp: Let’s start at the beginning so we have a full understanding.  Exactly what is shingles?

Dr. Pritish Tosh: There’s a virus, the varicella zoster virus, which causes two different syndromes. We think about chicken pox in children, and many people are familiar with that. Well then the virus, after it infects people, sort of stays with you for the rest of your life, hangs out in your nerves. And then people’s normal immune systems are able to keep the virus at bay. But over time, especially with older age and sometimes if people are taking medications to lower their immunity, the virus can sort of escape the immune system and then erupt in what we see as shingles, which is a very painful skin rash. Often it will go away on its own, the rash itself. But what you were talking about earlier, about this being the pain that’s associated with it afterwards, which we call postherpetic neuralgia, can be really debilitating and often long, long lasting. And so, even though the shingles itself often doesn’t cause a lot of trouble for people, it’s that lingering postherpetic neuralgia, the pain that stays with people that can be very debilitating.

Linda Lowen: So when you’re an adult it seems that we start talking about shingles at around age 50. But does the risk factor increase as you age? I’ve heard it’s probably much worse when you’re 65, is that correct?

Dr. Tosh: Right, so the older you are, the immune system also ages and is not as functional. And the immune responses that keep the varicella zoster virus in check, those start to deteriorate. And so, right now the CDC is recommending the vaccine for anyone over age 60. The FDA has approved the vaccine for anyone over 50 years.  People in those age groups should be getting the vaccine.

Linda Lowen: In terms of the appearance of the rash, what are the common characteristics? Where does it appear and does the severity have to do with where it appears on the body?

Dr. Tosh: It can appear nearly anywhere, however what we usually see is it being only on one side of the body and affecting really just the area that the nerve that was infected is associated with. That being said, the rash usually shows up as very painful and often looks like a blistering type of rash.

Linda Lowen: We know that chicken pox, when our kids have it we isolate them, don’t send them to school, because they are contagious for a period of time. How about shingles? Are they contagious?

Dr. Tosh: So shingles is contagious. And people, especially pregnant women, should not be in contact with people who have active lesions because those lesions are going to have a lot of virus in them. And so people who are at high risk of developing infection from the virus itself, so pregnant women, people who are highly immunocompromised, they should stay away from people who have active shingles lesions.

More of this interview can be heard on Take Care, WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York