Ways to Treat Shingles

Did you know that one out of three people in the U.S. will develop the shingles virus in their lifetime? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there’s an estimated one million cases of shingles each year. Don’t be scared by those numbers- shingles is preventable and treatable.

“One of the infections that primary care physicians want to avoid with their patients is the development of shingles,” said Ben Hur Aguilar, MD. “A common myth is that if you did not have chicken pox when you were little, you are less likely to get shingles when you’re older.”

While shingles are associated with a rash, the virus often begins with a pain, itching or tingling, following along the course of the nerve that is infected. The rash is almost always on one side of the body, but can occur anywhere, even the eye. “The majority of people that were born before 1980 in the US have already had chicken pox. Sometimes the rash of chicken pox is very mild and people often times don’t know that they have chicken pox,” continued Dr. Aguilar.

“Once an individual gets chicken pox, part of the virus will be sitting in the nerve endings and after some years can be reactivated from stress,” stated Dr. Aguilar.

Some other symptoms include fever, headache and upset stomach. Sometimes people have pain along the course of a nerve, but no rash. Any damage to the nerve may result in long-term pain.

Anyone, including children, can contract shingles, but the risk increases with age.

People with shingles can transmit the virus and cause chickenpox within an individual who has not yet had chickenpox nor vaccinated against it. Individuals with compromised immune systems are also at risk. Shingles can be transmitted from the time a person first feels the pain until the blisters from the rash scab over. “If it is still fresh and has not yet scabbed over, you can contract shingles from skin-to-skin contact and droplet contact. We encourage people with the rash to cover the rash until it scabs and stay away from others,” said Dr. Aguilar. Antiviral medications help treat shingles and shorten the length of severity of the virus.

The vaccine is FDA recommended for anyone over the age of 50. “One of the strengths of a primary care physician is to encourage people to get vaccinated,” Dr. Aguilar said. Towards the end of 2017, the FDA approved a new vaccine, Shingrix, which is not only safer, but is more effective in preventing shingles. “Shingrix is 97% effective with two doses administered 2-6 months apart; the older vaccine, Zostavax, is only around 51% effective,” Dr. Aguilar continued.

Since the vaccine is new, unfortunately not all insurance companies cover the vaccine like they do other shots currently. Medicare Part B does not cover the vaccine, but many Medicare prescription plans (Part D) do provide at least partial coverage. “If you’re 50, especially if you’re immunocompromised, you need to make sure you get the shingles vaccine; the earlier you get it, the better,” said Dr. Aguilar.

“Some patients often ask, ‘What if I miss the second dose for the Shingrix, do I have to start the process over?’ The answer is no. Once you get the second dose, it will offer immunity,” Dr. Aguilar concluded.

He also encourages his patients to talk with their insurance companies about the vaccine. Unlike the older live vaccine (Zostavax), the newer Shingrix vaccine is not a live vaccine, and may be used in patients whose immune systems are compromised, such as cancer patients undergoing treatment.

Article provided by Bayhealth