If you had chickenpox when you were a child, the fever, blisters and scabs are a distant memory. But the virus has lingered in your body for decades, and it may not be done with you.
"The virus goes into sort of a hibernation in your spinal cord, and it lives there for the rest of your existence," says Dr. Neeraj Tayal, who specializes in preventive medicine at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. "Through stress and getting older, your immune system's not as strong as it was, and it can reactivate."
If it does reactivate, it takes the form of shingles, a disease that causes a painful, blistering rash. No one knows what makes the long-dormant virus reactivate, but Tayal, who recently completed a study on improving shingles vaccination rates by using electronic medical records, says, "It's clearly tied to stress levels."
A vaccine can lower the risk of getting shingles. The Zostavax vaccine, available by prescription, is approved only for adults 50 or older, the population hardest hit by shingles. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says all adults 60 and older should get the shingles vaccine, even if they don't recall having had chickenpox. The reason: You may have forgotten you had the disease or had such a mild case it was misdiagnosed or overlooked. The vaccine is safe, even if you never had chickenpox.
The vaccine is available at major drugstore chains and many pharmacies, including those inside supermarkets. The cost of a shingles vaccination is about $200, and getting reimbursed can be a bit tricky. Many private health insurance plans cover some of the costs, although some plans do not cover people younger than 60. As for Medicare, the vaccine is not covered by Part B, which covers other vaccinations such as flu shots. Shingles vaccinations are covered by Medicare Part D. You will be responsible for whatever co-pay your Part D plan requires. If you're not getting the vaccine at a doctor's office, make sure the pharmacy you're using is in your Part D network or you might have to pay the whole cost yourself.
Tayal notes that because Zostavax is a live-virus vaccine, it may not be suitable for everyone. Your pharmacist or doctor will be able to advise you.
To learn more about possible side effects and to find a pharmacy dispensing the shingles vaccine, go to zostavax.com. For more information about the disease, go to bit.ly/shingles-vaccine.