Dear Lucy: My mom and other family members have had shingles over the years. Does this increase my chances of getting shingles myself, and should I get the vaccine? —Shingle Belle
Dear Belle: Lucy thanks you for an excellent question. As you probably know, anyone who had chickenpox as a child is at risk of developing shingles as an adult. Chickenpox is caused by varicella zoster virus, which may remain in the body even after a child has recovered from the symptoms of chickenpox. But as the immune system weakens with age, the virus can reemerge, causing the painful, blistering rash known as shingles. And even after the rash disappears, debilitating pain can linger for weeks, months, or even years.
Lucy put your questions to Associate Medical Director Howard Heller. To the first—whether a genetic predisposition may increase one’s likelihood of developing shingles—Heller’s answer is “no.” But he replies in the affirmative to your question about getting the vaccine. “We advise everyone who may have had chickenpox as a child to get the shingles vaccine at age 60,” he emphasizes.
Some people wonder about getting the vaccine at a younger age. Individuals younger than 60 can get shingles, Heller affirms, and the vaccine is approved for use in persons over age 50. However, the CDC recommends waiting until age 60 to get the vaccines, because its effectiveness can wear off. “If a person gets the vaccine too early,” Heller explains, “then when they reach their 60s and 70s, which is when the risk of shingles increases, they won’t have as much of the protection of the vaccine.” But, he notes, “the FDA is likely to approve a new, and significantly improved, shingles vaccine
shortly, and MIT Medical will switch to that vaccine as soon as it is available—probably within the next year or two.”
After seeing your own family members dealing with the pain of shingles, Lucy totally understands your concerns, and she seconds Dr. Heller’s advice to do what you can to avoid developing the condition yourself. Here’s to good health! —Lucy