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Do you need a shingles vaccine?

If you’ve had chickenpox, you’re already at risk of developing shingles later. Shingles can be a painful condition, but there are ways to protect yourself early.

Shingles often creates a painful rash and blistering, says Piedmont internal medicine physician Dora Dhakal, M.D. It’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus, which lies dormant once you’ve recovered from chickenpox but can reactivate later.

“Most of my patients are not aware of shingles or potential risk for shingles,” Dr. Dhakal says. “Some of my patients who know someone that has had shingles will bring it up for discussion during their visits.”

By receiving the Shingrix vaccine, she adds, you can reduce your risk for this painful condition. Here’s what you need to know.

Who is at highest risk for shingles?

Although anyone who’s had chickenpox could develop shingles, some people are at greater risk than others. They include:

  • Older people (50+)
  • People with conditions that weaken the immune system (ex: HIV)
  • People on treatment that suppress the immune system (ex: chemotherapy)

“I recommend the Shingrix vaccine to all immunocompetent adults that are 50 years and older,” Dr. Dhakal says. That includes patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Even if your experience with chickenpox was mild, shingles can be much more severe, and you can have it more than once. Dr. Dhakal points out that it can also lead to complications such as blindness, paralysis and hearing/balance problems.

One of the most common shingles complications, she adds, is chronic pain following recovery from the virus itself. Older people are at higher risk for this condition.

What do I need to know about the shingles vaccine?

The vaccine, called Shingrix, is the best way to protect yourself against shingles. It requires two doses, given two to six months apart, and it’s important to receive both injections on the correct timeline.

Dr. Dhakal says that Shingrix has been found to be 90 percent effective in preventing shingles and the chronic pain that can follow it. 

“The most common misconception that I hear about Shingrix is ‘I have had shingles, so I don’t need the vaccine,’ or ‘I don’t remember ever getting chickenpox, so why do I need the vaccine?’” she says. “I tell these individuals that you can get shingles again even if you have had shingles in the past, and the best way to protect yourself is by getting the vaccine.” And remember that just because you don't recall having had chickenpox, it doesn't mean you've never had it. 

If you think you may have shingles, she adds, it’s best to see your doctor right away. There’s no cure for the illness, but getting treatment early can help you heal faster.

If you’re an older adult and have had chickenpox before, talk to your doctor about the right time to get vaccinated – it’s the best way to reduce your chances of shingles and long-lasting pain.

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