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Your Questions Answered: SHINGLES

Gilden, Donald H. M.D.

Department: Ask the Experts

Answers on shingles, insomnia, sciatica, and cluster headaches

Donald H. Gilden, M.D., is professor and chairman of neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

QI just heard about a new vaccine that protects against shingles. How do I know if it would be right for me?



A If you are over age 60 and had chicken pox as a child, you should get the new shingles vaccine. Shingles, which produces rash and searing nerve pain in hundreds of thousands of older adults each year, occurs when the same virus that causes chicken pox is reactivated.

Even if you don't remember having chicken pox, getting vaccinated still might make sense. That's because people can be exposed, produce antibodies, and not know they've had chicken pox. You can have your blood drawn at a lab and tested to see if you have antibodies against the virus. Anyone who tests positive for the antibodies should get the vaccine.

While the vaccine doesn't guarantee that you won't get shingles, it does cut the rate by about 50 percent. Therefore, it's certainly worth taking a shot at reducing the likelihood that you'll develop this condition.

That's because shingles can be quite painful and the effects can be long-lasting. Many people have pain for four to six weeks and some for as long as months or even years.

About five years ago, I had shingles. I was lucky: The pain and rash went away in a couple of days. But the first day, I was miserable. I had no appetite. I felt terrible pain in my arm.

That experience really made me realize what my patients with postherpetic neuralgia—a chronic nerve pain that can follow an episode of shingles—were going through. They don't call it the “belt of roses from hell” for nothing.

If you've had shingles in the past 10 years, skip the vaccine since the shingles will have boosted your immunity to the virus.

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