There are very few things that I hate. It’s an extremely strong word, and I prefer when it comes to people, food or activities that I use “dislike a lot” or “really don’t care for” since those seem a lot less harsh. When it comes to needles, however, I can honestly say I hate them with a passion. Yes, I am a true weenie if I need to get any shots. So when the doctor reminded me I am at the age for a shingles vaccine, I balked and whimpered like a baby in the corner. Blood draws are okay, especially if I look the other way and squeeze my eyes shut tightly — but that’s stuff coming out of my body, not going in. There is a big difference! Today, Grandpa got his shingles shot, and it was a breeze for him. He is a lot braver than I am.
Shingles is a nasty viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it most often appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso. The virus is the same as the chicken pox called varicella-zoster. No matter how you spell or pronounce it, it’s just plain awful. This virus stays dormant in your body if you have had chicken pox and pretty much lies in wait near your spinal chord and brain. Later on in life, it may rear its ugly head in the form of shingles — and while it is not a life-threatening condition, it is extremely painful. See, I told you it was nasty.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people age 60 and older get the shingles vaccine to help prevent and reduce the risk of developing them. Depending on the type of vaccine your doctor recommends, you may be given one dose or two spaced four months apart. Twice the fun! You can ask your physician if they give it, or you can go to a pharmacy. Call first to make sure they have it in stock before you go, and be prepared to pay anywhere from about $150 to $225, since Medicare Part A and B does not pay for it. Part D does. Your supplemental insurance should also be checked to see if you are covered and if that pharmacy is included in your plan. Grandpa says it’s worth it, and I must agree.
If you did not have chicken pox in your lifetime, it may not be necessary to get the vaccine, since you are immune, but you can still catch them from someone who has it. I don’t recall if I had chicken pox, so I went for a simple blood test today to see. I have my fingers crossed.
The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only that one small section on one side of your body. Sometimes, the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face, but that is rarer. The symptoms may include pain — which is usually the first symptom — burning, numbness or tingling, sensitivity to touch and a red rash a few days after the pain begins.
If that isn’t bad enough, you can experience fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over, spike a fever, experience headaches and fatigue. All in all, this sounds like something nobody wants.
The pain, for some, can be intense. Depending on the location, it can be mistaken for problems affecting the heart, lungs or kidneys. Some people even experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash. In any case, if you are not feeling well and have any questions, you should contact your doctor immediately. The vaccine will not cure an existing case of shingles.
The virus is also highly contagious, and even if you are immune and have not had chicken pox, it is imperative you do not have contact with anyone experiencing shingles.
On your next appointment, ask your doctor if you are at risk and what he or she recommends. If you are, be brave and get the shot.
Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with several local senior care and advocacy groups. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.