Shingles tip sheet details often-ignored health issue

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: NIAID via Flickr

When was the last time you thought about shingles? Not the ones you put on your roof, but the itchy, burning, painful rash that affects about a million older adults each year. For some people, shingles can be downright dangerous. So why aren’t more older adults getting vaccinated?

As Paula Span wrote in this New York Times article, “People once vigilant about vaccinating their children are not nearly as careful about protecting themselves as they age, even though diseases like influenza, pneumonia and shingles (aka herpes zoster) are particularly dangerous for older people.”

Shingles appears years after an older people had chicken pox as a child. That is because the virus, herpes zoster, remains dormant in the body’s system for life; until a condition like a weakened immune system in older age triggers reactivation.

As this new AHCJ tip sheet describes, shingles is more common than many people realize, with about 95 percent of U.S. people at risk. By the time people reach age 80, half of all Americans will have had it, according to the National Institutes of Health. Complications, such as an increased short-term risk of heart attack and stroke or a severe pain called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), increases with age.

Part of the challenge is reducing the confusion about the vaccine, which has been on the market for a decade. McKnight’s Long-Term Care News analyzed online conversations about the vaccine. They found that many older adults talked about their personal opinions and experiences, which “often led to a decision about the vaccine that was based on feelings, not facts.”

The importance of vaccinations for adults age 50-plus is getting renewed attention from some health departments around the United States. In the exam room of my primary care physician, posters on the wall encouraged patients to ask about vaccinations, and one specifically emphasized shingles. It’s a good reminder that shots aren’t just for kids.

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