Vaccines. They’ve been quite the hot topic in the last few years and especially as of late. One of the most common vaccines that older adults get is the shingles vaccine. Many of the Medicare beneficiaries we speak with have questions about it, so today, we will answer those questions.
What are shingles? Which Shingles vaccines are available? Who should get the vaccine? Who shouldn’t? Are there complications or side effects? Does Medicare pay for it?
Let’s jump in.
What Are Shingles?
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It can cause painful blisters on your skin called herpes sores. These spots look like chickenpox sores, except they don’t itch. The pain from these sores usually lasts one to three weeks, but they may be more severe than this. You might also experience tingling around the area where the sore was located. This is known as postherpetic neuralgia.
Shingles occur when an individual has had chickenpox at some point during their life. If someone gets shingles after having never experienced chickenpox before then, they would not have immunity against the disease. In fact, if you haven’t ever gotten chickenpox, you’re actually considered immune because you were exposed to the virus.
Who Should Get the Shingles Vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends receiving the shingles vaccine if you fall into any of these categories:
Healthy adults, age 50 and older
Adults who have not had shingles
Adults who have had shingles once the infection has passed. Individuals can have shingles more than one time. The risk for infection does not decrease once you have had shingles.
Adults who are not sure if they had chickenpox in the past. Records indicate that 99% of Americans over the age of 40 have had chickenpox.
Those who got the Zosavax shingles vaccine, which is no longer available in the United States
The Shingrix vaccine is administered in two doses.
Is the shingles vaccine recommended for anyone younger than 50?
Yes, it may be recommended for individuals younger than 50 in some situations. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of the shingles vaccine for individuals who are at least 18 years of age and who are at an increased risk to develop shingles due to immunodeficiency or immunosuppression caused by a known disease or therapy.
Who Should Not Get the Shingles Vaccine?
The CDC also has recommendations for those who should not receive the vaccine. You should not get the vaccine if you fall into any of these categories:
Individuals who have had allergic reactions to the vaccine
Individuals who tested negative for varicella-zoster immunity (These individuals should get a chickenpox vaccine instead.)
Individuals who currently have shingles
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
Individuals who have a severe or moderate acute illness, like a respiratory infection
Individuals who currently have a temperature of 101.3 degrees or higher
What Shingles Vaccines Are on the Market?
The Shingrix vaccine (RZV) is the only shingles vaccine available today. It was approved for use in 2017 and has proven to be more than 90% effective in preventing shingles and postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHM is a common complication that leaves its victims with long-term nerve pain.
How is the Shingrix vaccine administered?
The Shingrix vaccine is administered in two doses. The injections are given between two and six months apart. Protection from these injections is estimated to last four to five years.
Though no longer available in the United States, Zostavax was the recommended vaccine from 2006 up until 2020. Zostavax used a weakened form of the chickenpox virus to expose the body’s immune system to the disease. After successfully defeating the weak virus, the body becomes immune to future, stronger exposures.
Zostavax was not as effective as the new Shingrix vaccine. It only reduced an individual’s risk of getting shingles by about 50% in those who were 60 years old or older. Risk reduction increased to 70% for individuals aged 50 to 59.
How was the Zostavax vaccine administered?
The Zostavax vaccine was administered in just one dose. Those who received the Zostavax vaccine in the past are now recommended to get the Shingrix vaccine.
Complications and Side Effects of the Shingles Vaccine
The shingles vaccine has been shown to be safe. However, like anything else in healthcare, there are common side effects and possible complications. Common side effects generally last two or three days and are only seen in one out of every ten people who receive the vaccine. (Younger individuals are more likely to have side effects.)
Common side effects include:
Mild to moderate pain or soreness where the injection was given. The site may also be red and swell slightly.
Fever and chills
Nausea and stomach pain (occurs in one out of every four people)
There have also been instances of severe allergic reactions, as there are with any vaccine. Anaphylaxis is very serious and can be life-threatening. If you have an allergic reaction to the shingles vaccine, it will occur shortly after administering the dose, so your healthcare team will be able to quickly and efficiently treat your reaction.
If after you have left your vaccination appointment, you begin to develop more advanced symptoms like problems breathing, face or throat swelling, or if you feel weak or dizzy, you should call 911 immediately.
If any of the other more common side effects last more than a few days, you should contact your healthcare provider. You should also contact them if you develop a rash after receiving the vaccine. In very rare instances (less than one out of 10,000 cases), individuals can develop chickenpox after shingles vaccination.
Does Medicare Pay for the Shingles Vaccine?
Yes, your Medicare Part D plan will cover the cost of a shingles vaccine. It is not covered under Medicare Part B. If you have other private health insurance, you’ll need to check your plan’s coverage. Some plans cover the vaccine after age 50, while others do not offer coverage until age 60.
Vaccines are a personal choice, but make sure you have done your research and made an informed decision about your healthcare. Speak to your healthcare provider if you have further questions about the shingles vaccine and its possible side effects and complications.