Once you’ve had chickenpox, you’re unlikely to get it again but that doesn’t mean that the virus goes away. That’s because it comes back as you age as something called shingles. Scientists believe the chickenpox virus somehow leaves the blisters that it is known for and moves into the nervous system. It hangs out in the nervous system for decades and then reactivates, moving back down the nerve fibers and into the skin to erupt as a rash.
If you’ve had the chickenpox you’re at risk for shingles and that’s bad because shingles aren’t just itchy or painful but having shingles increases your risk of heart attacks and strokes by as much as 74 percent according to a study published in the journal Neurology on Jan. 2, 2014. Researchers looked at 106,601 individuals with shingles and a control group of 213,202 individuals over a period of 6.3 years. After accounting for body mass index, smoking, cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and other vascular risk factors they found that a bout of shingles increased the risk of heart attack by 10 percent and the risk of mini-stroke or TIA by 15 percent.
What was more concerning was that individuals who got shingles before age 40 were 74 percent more likely to have stroke, 2.4 times more likely to have transient ischemic attack (TIA) and 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack. Lead researcher, Dr. Judith Breuer of University College London recommends that anyone with shingles, especially young people, be screened for stroke risk factors. Those factors that increase the risk of stroke also increase the risk of shingles.
A shingles vaccine does exist and has been shown to reduce the risk of shingles by 50 percent in older individuals but no studies have been done yet to determine if the shingles vaccine can reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack nor have studies been done to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine on younger people.
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the vaccine for individuals 60 and above who had had chickenpox. In 2011, the FDA extended that approval to include individuals 50-59. Even those people who get shingles despite having the vaccine appear to have a dramatic decrease in severity and complications. At this time the vaccine is a preventive therapy and not a treatment for those who already have shingles.
If you have a Medicare prescription drug plan (Part D), your plan must cover the shingles vaccine, however, according to Medicare Rights, the amount you pay for the vaccine may vary. Here are their recommendations for getting vaccinated at the lowest cost:
• Generally it is cheapest to get vaccinated at a pharmacy that is in your plan’s network. Some states may not allow you to get vaccinated at the pharmacy but Washington is not one of those states.
• Call the pharmacy ahead to see if they have the vaccine, if they can administer it directly to you and whether you are in their Part D plan network.
• If you get vaccinated at the doctor’s office instead, do so at an office that can bill your Part D plan for the entire cost of the vaccination. If your doctor must bill you first, he or she can charge you more for the vaccination and the reimbursement will not cover more than the approved amount for the vaccination.
If you have shingles, you should get screened for risk factors associated with stroke and heart problems.