We hope that most of you are familiar with shingles. After all, if you ever had chickenpox, then you already have the virus that causes shingles laying dormant in your body. However, for those of you who are unfamiliar, shingles is an infection of an individual nerve and the skin surface that is supplied by the nerve; it is caused by the varicella-zoster virus; or, as we mentioned, the same virus that causes chickenpox.
But according to researchers in the United States, emergency room visits for shingles fell in the past decade for people aged 60 and older but rose for most younger age groups. The decrease among older people may be due to more of them getting the shingles vaccine.
Anyone who has had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine can develop shingles, but the risk increases sharply after age 50 and vaccination against the shingles causing virus is recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention starting at age 60.
Vaccination can cut shingles risk by more than half, and the severe pain, known as post-herpetic neuralgia, by two-thirds, said senior study author Dr. Arash Mostaghimi of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Mostaghimi and his colleagues analyzed trends in emergency room visits among various age groups between 2006, when the shingles vaccine first became available in the U.S., to 2013.
More than 1.3 million ER visits were for the shingles causing virus, they reported in JAMA Dermatology.
While the study doesn’t prove that vaccination cut emergency room visits for shingles, Mostaghimi said in an email, “in combination with several other studies, it suggests that, overall, the vaccine is effective in real-life . . . for reducing the likelihood of getting shingles and the severity of illness if it occurs.”
However, very often there is a pain that precedes the rash associated with shingles by as many as a couple of days, which can make diagnosing tricky. “You may think you have a severe stomach ache, chest pain or even a stroke. Often, the pain only responds to the strong pain medications available in the emergency room.”
So our recommendation (and that shared by most doctors) is that if you’re 60 or older and haven’t gotten the vaccine, at the very least consider putting a calendar reminder on your smartphone to discuss it with your doctor. If you do, then in all likelihood you will be saving yourself a lot of pain and discomfort later on.