What to know about shingles and its vaccine
Herpes zoster, also known as shingles, is a painful skin rash that lasts for two to four weeks.
The disease is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. In most cases, chickenpox is a benign infection with symptoms that disappear within 10 days.
However, the varicella zoster virus remains dormant near the patient’s spine, and the virus can be reactivated years later in some cases, causing different symptoms.
One of the most unpleasant is neuralgia, or constant intense pain affecting mainly the nerves of the chest and neck or the trigeminal nerve in the face and lower back.
The pain can be accompanied by paresthesia, a feeling of tingling, prickling, itching, numbness, or burning. A blistering skin rash often develops.
The number of shingles patients is increasing yearly, especially among women and people in their 50s, according to data from the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service (HIRA).
According to records from the HIRA, 725,511 people were diagnosed with shingles in 2018, up 12.4 percent from 2014’s 645,624. The number of female patients was 1.6 times higher than males, as 441,000, or 61 percent, were women in 2018.
About 24.5 percent, or 177,600 patients in 2018 were in their 50s. Patients in their 60s followed at 21.1 percent and those in their 40s at 15.7 percent. About 84,500 were in their 30s and 43,622 were in their 20s.
“The reason for shingles and the frequent outbreaks among people in their 50s is still unclear. But it may be due to lowered immunity to infections,” said Jo Jung-koo, a professor at the anesthesiology department of the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) Ilsan Hospital.
“Shingles is more common in older adults and in people who have weakened immune systems. Seniors are more vulnerable to chronic diseases and the level of immunity drops when the body weakens.”
Is varicella zoster virus contagious?
Any person with shingles can pass the varicella zoster virus on to anyone who’s not immune to chickenpox. It is usually transmitted through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. Once infected, the person will develop chickenpox, not shingles.
However, chickenpox can also be dangerous for some people. Shingles is contagious until the scabs of the blisters have healed, so patients should avoid physical contact with anyone who hasn’t yet had chickenpox or been vaccinated, especially people who have relatively weak immune systems such as pregnant women, young children and babies.
Prevention and treatment
There is no cure for shingles, but immediate treatment with antiviral drugs can reduce the risk of complications.
Doctors also recommend getting vaccinated, especially for those aged 60 or higher who are more vulnerable to the disease, as the vaccine is believed to reduce the chances of the infection by up to 50 percent.
Currently, people looking to receive the shingles vaccine have two options: Zostavax and Shingrix.
Zostavax was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006. It is a vaccine that is administered subcutaneously, usually in the back of the arm. It is designed to help people aged 50 years or older, but health authorities recommend people over 60 get vaccinated. Efficacy of the vaccine goes down as the age of a person goes up. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zostavax is 70 percent effective for those in their 50s, and the rat decrease from there - 64 percent in the 60s, 41 percent in the 70s, and 18 percent in the 80s.
Shingrix, approved by the FDA in 2017, is a preferred alternative to Zostavax. It is said to be 97 percent effective in preventing shingles for adults of ages 50 to 69, and over 90 percent for people in their 70s and older, CDC data showed.
Experts said Shingrix offers protection against the disease for over five years. It is a non-living vaccine made of a virus component, and is given in two doses, with an interval of two to six months.
“It sounds typical, but the best prevention of shingles is to boost your immunity by having enough sleep, rest and regular exercise and avoiding stressful situations,” Jo said.
A woman is administered a shingles vaccine. The number of shingles patients is increasing yearly, especially among women and people in their 50s, according to data from the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service.
Blistering of the skin is one of the symptoms of shingles.