**By Alison Koop**
Have you seen the TV commercial with football great Terry Bradshaw? He’s urging adults over age 50 to be vaccinated for shingles (a virus that inflames nerve endings). He’s got a point: Studies show that most of us underestimate our chances of getting the disease. And how severe it can be.
In fact, your odds of developing shingles during your lifetime are 1 in 3. Did you have chickenpox as a child? If you did, the virus is already inside you. It lies dormant unless it finds a chink in the armor of your immune system, which can happen as you grow older. Unfortunately, a painful, long-lasting rash may not be the end of it.
Take Barbara’s experience. Barbara, an accountant, was blindsided when she developed shingles at age 62. She’d heard of the disease but never gave it a second thought. At first, she thought she was coming down with the flu with headache and muscle aches. Her eyes hurt too. They were so light sensitive, she couldn’t bear to look at a computer screen and decided she’d better stay home from work.
Several days later the rash appeared, a wide band stretching from one side of her spine to her abdomen. Tingling, burning and stabbing, the pain was worse than she had bargained for. When she moved or reached for something and her blouse brushed her skin, it was agony. She was home from work for three weeks.
Even after the rash healed, the shingles virus wasn’t done with Barbara. It’s been three years, but she still suffers from a condition called postherpetic neuralgia. This is a burning, stabbing pain from nerve damage done by the disease. Prescription pain medications help some, but she rarely joins her husband, Joe, for the neighborhood walks they used to enjoy together every evening. Barbara loves to cook, but it hurts to work long at the stove. Joe does most of the cooking and grocery shopping now.
Unfortunately, Barbara’s story is all too common. About 15 percent of shingles patients will suffer lingering effects. “Postherpetic neuralgia can be a terrible problem, especially if the eruption is on the face,” says Dr. Richard Mesher, a neurologist at Virginia Mason Medical Center. “People can have years of pain.” Post-shingles problems can cause people to give up activities they enjoy. It can even threaten their ability to live on their own, by making it hard to dress, bathe, cook, or shop.
But here’s the good news: By getting the vaccine, you’ll cut your odds of developing shingles in half. If you still come down with shingles, your symptoms should be milder. And you’ll be highly unlikely to suffer long-lasting pain or other neurological complications afterward.
Is it worth it, even if protection isn’t 100 percent? The CDC thinks so. It recommends that adults age 60 and over be vaccinated, and approves it as early as age 50, when shingles risk begins to rise. The shingles vaccine is considered safe and has been given for more than a decade. The only people who shouldn’t have the vaccine are women who are pregnant and people with weakened immune systems due to HIV/AIDS, cancer treatment or other specific conditions. If you have any doubt about getting the vaccine, talk with your doctor.
“I had no idea that shingles could be so bad,” Barbara says. “Tell everyone to get vaccinated. Tell your family, your friends, your co-workers. It’s really amazing how few people know about this.”