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August is Immunization Awareness Month

7 Things You Need to Know About Shingles Vaccines, Treatments, and Pain Prevention

Every August, we celebrate National Immunization Awareness Month, to raise awareness about the importance of vaccination. Vaccines can prevent serious or even deadly diseases in people of all ages.

Although vaccines are something you may associate with childhood, some vaccines are administered specifically to adults. This is the case with the shingles vaccine recommended in adults 50 years of age or older. The vaccine prevents chickenpox outbreaks and prevents a severe type of nerve pain, known as Postherpetic Neuralgia (PNH).

Here are some essential facts you need to know about shingles:

  1. Shingles is a recurrence of the chickenpox virus

Shingles is a painful skin rash due to infection with the varicella-zoster virus, otherwise known as the chickenpox virus. Anyone who's had chickenpox and recovered from it, can develop shingles. During the initial infection, usually in childhood, the chickenpox virus breaks the skin to invade a nerve, where it becomes dormant. The virus stays in “sleep mode” until a person’s immunity is weakened. This causes the virus to reactivate and return to the skin, as an infectious rash.

  1. The elderly and immune-compromised are at risk

Shingles is more common in people with lowered immunity, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, and organ transplant patients. Advanced age can increase a person’s risk. Some experts estimate that half the people who are 80 years or older will have an outbreak. Children may have shingles, although the risk is lower than in adults.

  1. Outbreaks cause a painful and contagious rash

A burning, electric-like pain is usually the first warning sign before a shingles outbreak. Several days later, itchy, red blisters develop over half of the body, in the torso, the face, or the scalp. A person may also experience fever, headaches, and sensitivity to light. Infected individuals can spread the virus through touch and by sharing the same sheets or clothes. Once the blisters dry and turn into scabs, a person is no longer infectious.

  1. There is a risk for severe, long-lasting nerve pain

After the rash heals, the most common complication of shingles is a long-term pain over the area of the original outbreak. This is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), and it results from damage to the nerve that harbors the virus. PHN causes burning, tingling, or stinging. It may last for months or even years after the rash disappears.

  1. Early treatment during an outbreak is important

Although the infection will clear on its own, starting treatment within 3 days of getting the rash, can speed up the recovery. Your primary care physician may be the first person to diagnose and treat the shingles. Treatment with medications like Acyclovir (Zovirax) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex) shortens the outbreak.

  1. Pain specialists treat the severe pain seen with PHN

A pain specialist can treat the sudden pain you have during the first stage of a shingles outbreak and the severe pain that you may have later on, from PHN. PHN treatments differ from treatments for acute pain. Your pain specialist will use unique treatments for nerve pain, including Lidocaine patches, Capsaicin creams, antidepressants/anticonvulsants, and Epidural steroid injections. This will provide several weeks of pain relief or longer.

  1. Vaccines decrease the severity and duration of outbreaks

There is no treatment for chickenpox. Once the virus enters your body, it continues to live inside the nervous system. Outbreaks are prevented through immunization with the FDA approved vaccines: Zostavax and Shingrix. Zostavax offers protection for about five years. It contains a live virus in a minimal dose. Shingrix offers protection beyond five years. It is a nonliving vaccine made of a virus component. The shingles vaccines do not guarantee that you won't get shingles, but they reduce the length of a possible outbreak and reduce the risk for PHN.

Although prevention through vaccination is recommended, if you have developed a painful shingles outbreak, a pain specialist can help you.

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