Vaccine, prompt medical care still best option for painful shingles

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The new Shingrix vaccine uses a new ingredient to boost immunity. | GlaxoSmithKline via AP

With all the emphasis on the flu vaccine at this time of year, there’s another preventive vaccine that people, especially ages 50 and over, should also consider after discussion with their doctor: shingles.

Amy Ellison got her first case of the shingles when she was 13, followed 25 years later by a second flareup of the virus-caused skin rash. Ellison, a 48-year-old Portage Park mother of three, says stress played a role each time. She works as a producer at 137 Films, a documentary production company.

Her experience debunks a myth that people get the shingles only once in a lifetime.

“Blisters on one side of your body are the hallmark” of shingles, said Ellison, who contracted the virus the first time even though her mother told her she had had a “raging” case of the chicken pox when she was 4 years old.

Amy Ellison is photographed at her home in Chicago on Tuesday, November 14, 2017. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Amy Ellison is photographed at her home in Chicago on Tuesday, November 14, 2017. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

“The belief – mistakenly – was that having had the chickenpox would somehow shield you from getting shingles,” she said. “I got shingles shortly after my grandfather, who was in his 80s, had had shingles.”

The primary sign of shingles is a blistering rash that travels along nerve pathways. The nerves correspond with nerve roots that extend from the spinal cord. Ellison’s first bout started with itchy blisters that popped up on the upper left side of her chest, up to her neck.

She still has no conclusive reason for the outbreak, but she said she was having a stressful year socially, struggling with friendships.“That was the only thing I could point to,” she said.

Ellison’s second experience came just two months after she had been bedridden with mono and when her oldest two children were ages 2 and 4.

She said she was starting to feel “back to normal” after a three-month recovery from mono, in which she ran a fever and had swollen lymph nodes. “I think it was just exhaustion,” she said of her second bout of shingles.

The second time, Ellison’s blisters — on the left side of her body — were gone within two weeks. She credits her quick recovery to rushing to the doctor to get anti-viral medication.

Yet the real key, she says, is to rest, take care of yourself and seek family support.Ellison hasn’t gotten a shingles vaccination because doctors never proposed one.

Jim Horst, an IT consultant who lives in the Avondale neighborhood, got shingles just before his 61st birthday – after enduring his own daughter’s experience with the shingles when she was nine years old. His case started with burning, itchy feelings like pin pricks on the right side of his back.

IT consultant Jim Horst quickly sought out medical attention following an outbreak of shingles. “The faster you start the prescription medication, the better off you are,” he says. | Supplied Photo

IT consultant Jim Horst quickly sought out medical attention following an outbreak of shingles. “The faster you start the prescription medication, the better off you are,” he says. | Supplied Photo

“Within a couple days, I had developed a blistering rash,” said Horst, who still takes two doses of medication each day to suppress the pain he still feels. The pain varies from feelings of pin pricks to “bad, burning” pain, he said.

Horst, too, advises getting quickly to a doctor – in his case, he went to a CVS MinuteClinic the day after he developed the blistering rash.

“The faster you start the prescription medication, the better off you are, and the clinic is cheaper [than the ER],” he said. “Within two weeks, the rash was gone.”

Horst has no idea how he got the shingles, but he said he has gotten poison ivy on outdoor hiking trails and volunteered at a no-kill animal shelter where several other people had had the shingles. Horst, an avid hiker who frequents Devil’s Head Trail in Wisconsin, said he remains in good health, but he cautions others that being healthy and watching your diet won’t necessarily protect you from getting the shingles.

“While my doctor told me that the residual pain usually is gone within 12 months, I am two years out and it is still with me,” he said. Horst got a shingles vaccination after he recovered.

Doctors say Horst’s advice is solid. They say a new shingles vaccine – required in two separate shots taken within two to six months – is worth the extra cost and doctor’s visit because it’s so highly effective. The two-shot shingles vaccine costs as much as $214, depending on the health-insurance policy.

The vaccine, called Shingrix, showed in clinical trials it can prevent 90 percent of shingles cases, compared with the old, single-shot vaccine’s 51 percent success rate.

“Both people’s antibodies and immune-cell responses appear to be more vigorous with this (new) vaccine,” said Dr. Ronald Lubelchek, an attending physician in the division of infectious diseases at Cook County Health and Hospitals System’s John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital.

Doctors recommend people get the shingles vaccination starting at age 50. It is effective for eight to 10 years.

Lubelchek said shingles takes many different forms, so some people may experience pain, tingling, numbness or other abnormal sensation under their skin as a first sign, followed by a rash. People may also get a fever and a headache.

“If you get symptoms, go to a doctor as early as possible,” he said. “There are anti-viral medications that can help with nerve-related pain. But the best idea is to be aware there is an effective vaccine, and get the shingles vaccine.”

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.

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