Shingles: More Common with Age
CDC recommends shingles
vaccine for adults 60+
Vaccinations are not just for children
and world travelers. Adults need booster shots for some common
vaccines such as the one for diphtheria and tetanus. A booster
reminds the immune system how to fight the disease. A few vaccines
are recommended specifically for older adults. One of these is the
vaccine for shingles.
Your doctor may call shingles:
Shingles is a disease that
causes a rash and often painful blistering on the skin.
After the skin clears, some people continue to
experience severe pain that can last for months or even
Early diagnosis and treatment of shingles may reduce and
actually prevent the risk of complications such as
long-lasting severe pain.
According to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 million cases of shingles
occur in the United States each year. More than half of the people
who develop shingles are over 60, and nearly 50% of complications
from shingles arise in older adults.
One serious complication that can occur is called post-herpetic
neuralgia (PHN). About 1 in 5 people will develop PHN, which can
cause excruciating pain for weeks, months, or even years after a
bout with shingles.
Other serious complications from shingles are rare and include eye
problems and possible blindness if shingles develops near an eye,
hearing loss, pneumonia, and inflammation of the brain
(encephalitis). All of these complications can be excruciatingly
If shingles develops, see a doctor immediately. On the face,
shingles can involve the eyes and may lead to blindness. Hearing
loss also can occur.
Shingles usually causes
a rash followed by blisters. This 78-year-old man has a
severe case on his chest.
Long after the rash and blisters clear, shingles can
cause debilitating pain that can last for months or even
(Photos used with
permission of the American Academy of Dermatology
National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides)
What the Vaccine Does
To prevent shingles in Americans who are most susceptible, the
CDC now recommends the shingles vaccine for people 60 years of age
and older. Clinical trials have found that the vaccine:
Reduces the risk of
developing shingles. In one study that enrolled 38,546
adults who were 60 years of age or older, the adults who
received the vaccine reduced their risk of getting shingles by
more than 50%.
Reduces the risk of
complications if shingles develops. In the study
mentioned above, some adults who received the vaccine developed
shingles anyway at a later time. These adults had fewer cases of
PHN than those who did not receive the vaccine. Cases of PHN
were reduced by 66.5%.
Vaccine Recommended if No History of
While only people who have had chicken pox can develop shingles,
the CDC recommends that people 60 years of age and older receive the
shingles vaccine — even if they do not recall having had chicken
pox. The CDC cautions that many people had a mild case of chicken
pox and simply do not remember. This puts them at risk for
Why Age Increases Risk of Shingles
As we age, our bodies become more susceptible to many diseases.
Anyone who has had chicken pox has a 10% to 30% lifetime risk of
developing shingles. By 85 years of age, this risk increases to 50%.
This increased risk may be due to a weakening of the immune system
that happens as we age. Others factors that weaken our immune system
include having certain diseases such as cancer or HIV/AIDS, many of
the treatments for cancer such as chemotherapy, and medication taken
to prevent rejection after an organ transplant.
Speak with Your Doctor
Vaccinations are important at all stages of our lives. If you
cannot remember the last time you received a booster shot or are
wondering if you should get the shingles vaccine, speak with your
doctor. Some people should wait to get certain vaccines, and others
should not receive specific vaccines. Discussing vaccinations with
your doctor will let you know if and when you should receive certain
vaccines, including the one for shingles.
To learn more about shingles including the signs and symptoms,
treatments, and possible complications, see the American Academy of
Dermatology’s pamphlet “Herpes
Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). “Recommended
adult immunization schedule: United States, October 2007-September
2008.” Ann Intern Med 2007; 147: 725-9.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC
Recommends Shingles Vaccine.” Press release issued May 15, 2008.
Last accessed February 10, 2009.
Hicks LD, Cook-Norris RH, Mendoza N et al. Family history as
a risk factor for herpes zoster: a case-control study. Arch
Dermatol 2008; 144: 603-8.
Oxman MN, Levin MJ, Johnson GR et al. A vaccine to prevent
herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia in older adults. N Engl
J Med 2005; 352: 2271-84.
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developed by the American Academy of Dermatology
The shingles vaccine has
been studied in clinical trials, and findings from these
trials have led to the following:
• May 2006 - The U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the vaccine.
• May 2008 - The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the
vaccine for adults aged 60 and older.