Pierce: Don't get nailed with the shingles

Pierce: Don't get nailed with the shingles

January 26th, 2012 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Don't bother to read this unless you are 50 or older and had chicken pox as a kid.

Today's column will vary from its usual focus on calorie-counting, but it's information that I can guarantee from personal experience is important to a healthy lifestyle.

Just one month ago I had never heard of the "shingles vaccine." But after three weeks of coping with some of the most severe pain I've ever had (made childbirth and kidney stones look wimpy), I wish I hadn't been so clueless.

Baby boomers, take all the war stories your friends ever told describing their painful bouts with shingles, and multiply by 10. Now you're in the ballpark. And it all might have been avoided if I had known about the Zostavax vaccine, aka shingles vaccine.

Shingles, for those who still haven't been acquainted, is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. The virus, medically known as varicella zoster virus, can lie dormant in the body for years after you've had the chicken pox before suddenly springing into action along one of the body's sensory nerves.

Mine attacked the optic nerve.

I was blessed in that I only had a smattering of the painful blisters around my left eye, hairline and forehead, but I had violent head pain that felt like a spike being driven through my left eye and out the back of my head. Nonstop, 24/7, three weeks. The back of my head was so sensitive to pain that I literally could not touch it against anything, even a pillow, for 10 days.

Two physician visits along with a checkup by my eye doctor was necessitated along with a week of antiviral medication and two prescriptions for painkillers. The only upside to those three weeks is that my lack of appetite resulted in an 8-pound weight loss.

Several friends calling to check on my progress mentioned the shingles vaccine, but all seemed to have different notions who was eligible to get it. Most thought it was only available to ages 60 and over, which meant I would have been too young anyway even if I had known about it.

I talked to Nettie Gerstle, communicable disease control program manager at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, to get the facts.

"The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the Center for Disease Control recommends the vaccine for everyone age 60 and older," said Gerstle. "Recently, the Federal Drug Administration approved it for ages 50 and older."

The health department official said one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. The risk for shingles increases with age, she said.

"By the time you are 85, 50 percent of the population will have had shingles," she said.

When I asked my doctor what triggered the viral flare-up, she unhesitatingly answered "stress." Gerstle agreed, saying stress is one of several factors that can also include the person's "physical constitution being run down or the person is immunosuppressed."

All these factors affect your body's ability to keep the virus under control, she said.

The one-time shot averages about $200. She said common side effects are redness and/or soreness at the shot site.

A sore arm vs. three weeks of mind-numbing head pain and blisters too sore to touch? No contest!

Yes, the $200 is pricey. It's the equivalent of two weeks of groceries, one month's light bill. But boomers, trust me when I say it might be the best bargain you'll ever find.

About the shingles vaccine

* Where to get the Zostavax vaccine

1. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, 921 E. Third St., $194.25. Appointments suggested but not required; call 209-8340.

2. Access Family Pharmacy, 4062 Hixson Pike, $218. No appointment needed,

3. Your personal physician's office.

* Reimbursement for vaccination

According to medicare.com, the singles vaccination will only be covered if you have a Medicare Part D Prescription Plan. The amount of co-payment for a vaccination varies, depending on your insurance plan. Medicare Part B does not cover the shingles vaccine.