Q. If I never had chicken pox, do I need a shingles vaccine? I'll be 60 in January.
A. The shot you're talking about is an immunization against a virus called the varicella-zoster virus. This virus causes two common illnesses and a few rare ones. The two common illnesses are chicken pox and shingles (also called "zoster").
The varicella-zoster virus usually enters our bodies in childhood, when it often causes chicken pox. After the chicken pox ends, the virus stays in our bodies for the rest of our lives. Our immune system cannot kill it, so it just tries to keep the virus quiet.
The virus lives inside nerves that lead to our skin. In most of us, it remains "asleep" and causes no problems. Sometimes, it "wakes up" and begins making copies of itself. When the virus wakes up, it can cause pain, itching or an unpleasant sensation in a patch of skin. A few days later, that patch starts to develop a rash. The skin turns red and tiny blisters form. This condition is called shingles or zoster. The rash usually lasts no more than a few days, but sometimes the pain and discomfort last longer.
Because you are 60, you probably have been infected with the virus. If you're not sure, a blood test can tell if you've been infected with the virus in the past.
There are two types of vaccines against varicella-zoster virus. The first is for people who've never been infected. This protects them against ever getting infected. Because you probably have been infected, this type of vaccine does not apply to you. The second type is for people who have been infected. The goal of this vaccine is to prevent shingles and a condition that can follow shingles called post-herpetic neuralgia.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend most adults older than 60 get this shot. People who should not get it include those who've had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin and people who have an underlying medical condition or receive medical treatment impairing the immune system.
You should talk to your doctor about getting the shingles vaccine. It's not perfect, but it reduces your risk of getting shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia.