Getting the chicken pox as a kid was an itchy annoyance, but it can turn into something much worse as an adult: shingles. The virus starts as spots similar to the chicken pox, but it comes with nerve pain that can linger for months afterwards, and in rare cases turn deadly.
Shingles are extremely common, and Americans have a one in three chance of developing the virus in their lifetime — even playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda had them, after thinking he just had a migraine. Instead, the 38-year-old had to be quarantined from his then-2-month-old son.
“This is clearly an affliction that is worth preventing,” Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells PEOPLE. “Even after a week when all those blisters can resolve, the pain can continue for months, on and off, provoked by external stimuli. It can happen so frequently that it can affect your eating and your sleeping, and lead to people being very distressed by this post-shingles pain.”
Thankfully, shingles are fairly easy to prevent with a vaccination, and for years people age 50 and up were instructed to get a shot of Zostavax to ward away the virus. But Zostavax was only about two-thirds effective in preventing shingles, and the protection was essentially gone just seven years after getting the vaccine. In January, a new vaccine — Shingrix — was approved by the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control now recommends it for everyone over age 50.
“The new vaccine is much more effective against preventing shingles and post-shingles pain — over 90 percent effective,” Dr. Schaffner says.
Plus, he adds, Shingrix’s protection has been shown to hold for the nine years they’ve studied it so far, “and probably beyond.”
And even a person develops shingles after getting the vaccine, it will “significantly reduce the severity of the disease,” Dr. Travis Stork, an ER physician, host of The Doctors and a member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, tells PEOPLE.
The one downside is that the Shingrix shot is fairly painful, and doctors are worried that people will skip the vaccination for the sake of their arms.
“Shingrix is two doses, separated by at least a month. And it is more painful,” Dr. Schaffner says. “In fact, enough people get sore arms for a day or two that everyone is concerned that they won’t return for the second dose. We have to let people know in advance that this is going to be frequently painful — but not for everyone! We need to make sure that people come back for the second dose to get the full protection.”
“People should schedule their appointment for the Shingrix vaccine knowing that they’re going to have some pain in the area where they got the shot,” Dr. Kathleen Dooling, medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control, tells PEOPLE.
Dr. Schaffner emphasizes that the protection from the vaccine is very much worth the pain, especially for people over the age of 80 who have a one-third to one-half chance of developing shingles.
“Pain from a shot is transient. But shingles can be damaging,” he says. “The first episode of shingles can be really very damaging, particularly if it involves your face. And that post-shingles pain goes on for months; it’s debilitating. A sore arm is a small price to pay for 90 percent protection against shingles.”
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