September 26, 2019 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Ekhorn resident Angie Jorgensen, 52, wasted no time getting a shingles vaccine upon turning 50. “I knew I would get the shingles shot the minute I turned 50 because my mother, who didn’t get the shot, got a horrifying case of it.”

Jorgensen’s mother, Connie Gonyea, contracted shingles around six years ago in her late 60s, and is still dealing with the effects.

“She got her shingles outbreak on her head of all places,” Jorgensen says. “She has sensitivity in an area on her scalp still, years later. She also has some nerve damage from it. Even combing her hair bothers her in certain places.”

Like many people age 50 and older, Jorgensen acquired chicken pox as a youngster. Many people retain vivid memories of chicken pox. The viral infection caused an itchy rash that blistered, and was often accompanied by fever, headaches, loss of appetite, and malaise. Chicken pox, however, rarely left nerve damage or sensitivity.

Those who acquired chicken pox need to be aware of shingles. The shingles virus results from varicella-zoster—the same infection that causes chicken pox—and resides in anyone who experienced chicken pox.

“The virus hides out in the nerves and decades later can reactivate and form shingles,” explains Dr. Rae Witt of Nebraska Medicine.

Shingles is not life-threatening, Witt says, “but can cause serious side effects.” Those affected can expect some burning pain and a dermatome [rash] on one side of the body that lasts around a week. “Most people fully recover, but around 20% of people aged 60-65 experience residual pain for months to years.” That number increases to 30% in people over age 80.

Shingles typically presents first as pain, or as Witt describes, “a weird burning on the skin,” followed by the dermatome, usually on the back or chest.

“Untreated, it will go away on its own,” Witt says. An anti-viral drug reduces the time affected and the severity of the pain. For best results, it is important to seek treatment as soon as people suspect they have shingles.

Shingles are not inevitable for those who had chicken pox earlier in life. “Lower immunity allows for an increased risk of shingles,” says Witt, adding that lifestyle choices such as “significant alcohol use, poorly controlled diabetes, high levels of stress for long periods of time, and even some medications” can increase the odds of shingles developing.

People over 50 should get a shingles vaccination, Witt says. Anyone who skips the vaccine because they don’t remember ever having chicken pox are putting themselves at risk because, as Witt explains, “it’s impossible to say someone never had chicken pox.” Since chicken pox presents in a spectrum of severity, it’s possible for someone to have chicken pox and never realize it, especially as a child.

The vaccine is a weakened virus, which helps the body recognize and fight the virus. “Over time, the body loses the ability to recognize the virus,” says Witt, explaining why the virus can lie dormant for so long within the body.

Shingles rarely reoccurs, and if that happens, Witt says doctors will “look for an underlying cause.”

She says there are two approved shingles vaccines: Zostavax and Shingrix. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Zoster vaccine live (ZVL, Zostavax) has been in use since 2006 and is approved for people over age 60. It is given in one dose, which gives protection from shingles for about five years.

The recombinant zoster vaccine (RZV, Shingrix), has been in use since 2017 and is recommended by ACIP as the preferred shingles vaccine. In fact, the CDC suggests that even those who previously received the Zostavax vaccine get the Shingrix vaccine, as long as they wait at least eight weeks after receiving a Zostavax vaccine. Shingrix is approved for people over the age of 50. It requires two doses that are given two to six months apart, and has a higher risk of side effects.

Donna Gilbert, 66, of Papillion, experienced minor side effects. “I got sick after the shot,” she says. “[It was] nothing terrible, and they warned me that might happen.”

Witt says there is currently no shortage of either vaccine, leaving no reason to avoid getting immunized. There is, however, a high demand for Shingrix. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the manufacturer of Shingrix, delivered about 8.3 million doses in 2018, and the CDC says production of the vaccine is being ramped up in 2019 in an effort to keep up with demand.

The best way to acquire the vaccine is to schedule an immunization through a doctor’s office. On the day the first dose is given, the second dose should be scheduled to avoid a waiting period. The vaccine may be available via a pharmacy, but it can be difficult for many places to acquire the vaccine, so those interested in being vaccinated may want to call ahead and check availability at their preferred location. In some cases, especially at pharmacies, there is a waiting list for people to get the immunizations.

It is always a good idea to check with one’s regular physician before getting the vaccine. The CDC says that someone who has a severe allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin should not get the vaccine, but as this equates to about 0.1% of the population, it is extremely rare. Those with a weakened immune system due to cancer treatments or HIV/AIDS will also want to check with their doctor before getting either vaccine.

Shingles shots are sometimes covered by insurance, so those who are age 50 or older and have not yet been immunized should check with their plan to find out their best option for getting the shot.


This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.