The one annual shot I always recommend—and why no one over the age of 50 can afford to skip it

If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while now, then you know that I am not a fan of many (or even most) vaccines—including the annual flu vaccine.

It’s a personal decision, of course. But even this year, when health experts say that getting the shot is more important than ever, I still maintain the belief that there are more effective ways to prevent the flu.

So it might surprise you to hear that my opinions on the shingles vaccine are quite the opposite: In fact, I actually think everyone over the age of 50 should get this shot.

A bad case of shingles can ruin your life

If you’re familiar with shingles at all (also known as herpes zoster), then you know that this viral rash can be debilitating.

There are cases of shingles that are relatively mild and self-limiting… and others that are absolutely awful. It can make everyday tasks—from getting dressed to getting into bed (and everything in between)—nearly insurmountable. And if it involves your face or eyes, it can even threaten your eyesight and cause blindness.

But while that (fortunately) doesn’t happen often, there is something that does happen quite frequently to shingles patients…

Even after the rash goes away, you can be left with extreme pain in that section of the body—pain that can be set off by something as simple as the light touch of your shirt against your skin. Sometimes it can even prevent people from leaving their house!

This pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia—can linger for years. And in some cases, it doesn’t ever go away.

The odds skyrocket as you age

Shingles is an incredibly common virus. That’s because the culprit behind this agonizing rash is the same virus responsible for chicken pox.

Meaning, if you had the chicken pox as a child, the virus never completely leaves your body. It just lies dormant. But in some people, it “wakes up” years later. And, voila—shingles.

In fact, it’s estimated that one in three people in the United States will get shingles. And the older you get, the greater your risk. By the time you hit 80, your chances of having had shingles are as high as 50 percent.

Of course, even if you’ve already had shingles, I still recommend you get the vaccine. (Just wait at least one year after your case clears up.) Because shingles isn’t a one-and-done deal—you can get it again.

Now, getting the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get shingles. But it will reduce your chances significantly. And, if you do get the virus, the vaccine will likely make the symptoms milder and the illness shorter.

You’ll also be less likely to experience the dreaded post-herpetic neuralgia. Which is a compelling enough reason on its own for me to recommend shingles vaccination without reservation.

But pain isn’t the only potential threat on the table when shingles comes into play—or even the worst one…

Shingles kills—just not how you think

According to research recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, shingles also raises your risk of stroke and heart attack.

South Korean researchers followed more than 500,000 patients between 2003 and 2013, during which time, about 23,000 cases of shingles emerged. They compared this group to a similarly sized cohort of patients without shingles.

And here’s what they found: Shingles raised the risk of a whole constellation of cardiovascular events—including heart attack and stroke—by a whopping 41 percent. It raised the risk of stroke, specifically, by more than one-third—and the risk of heart attack, specifically, by nearly 60 percent.1

Ultimately, stroke risk from shingles was highest in patients younger than 40—a relatively low risk group, otherwise. And the risks of any cardiovascular event were highest within the first year after shingles onset, steadily decreasing thereafter.

This may come as a surprise at first glimpse—but it shouldn’t. Because as unrelated as shingles and heart problems may seem, they do share one lethal factor in common: inflammation.

In other words, this link isn’t coincidental at all…

Vaccination slashes stroke risk significantly

Research presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2020 showed that shingles vaccination may prevent stroke among older adults.

Scientists looked at the Medicare records of more than 1,000,000 beneficiaries aged 66 or older. None had a history of stroke, and all received the shingles vaccine between 2008 and 2014.

Researchers followed these subjects for nearly four years. And when matched with similar patients who didn’t receive the shingles vaccine, here’s what they found: Overall, shingles vaccination slashed stroke risk by 16 percent.2 (Ischemic strokes dropped by 18 percent, and hemorrhagic strokes dropped by 12 percent.)

The protection was strongest in patients aged 66 years to 79 years—as stroke risk dropped by nearly 20 percent in this group. In patients over 80, shingles lowered stroke risk by roughly ten percent—still a very significant benefit.

It’s also worth noting that this research looked at Zoster Vaccine Live—a live attenuated shingles virus vaccine available since 2006.

A newer vaccine—Adjuvanted, Non-Live Recombinant Shingles Vaccine—has been available since 2017. This version uses dead rather than live strains of the virus, and it’s now the preferred vaccine, due to its superior 90 percent effectiveness.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the latter will deliver the same results as the former—we’ll need more research to verify. But all things considered, I’d say it’s a fair bet.

A complementary treatment combo

So now, allow me to shift gears a bit and talk about the best ways to treat shingles outbreaks if they do occur.

The moment my patients come to me with the telltale blisters of shingles, I start them on an antiviral medication such as Zovirax® or Famvir®—as these drugs will make your case far less severe.

Yes, this is one of those cases where a prescription really is warranted. But before you mistake me for Big Pharma’s latest shill, let me share some natural therapies that I also recommend to my shingles patients.

The best complementary treatment for shingles is a course of intravenous vitamins that includes vitamin C, B6, B12 and B5. Along with the antiviral medications, this is the first-line therapy I use in my patients. It helps to curtail the illness and to combat muscle and nerve pain.

As for an oral regimen, this is what I recommend:

  • Vitamin B12—2,000 mcg per day. One of the prime benefits of this wonder vitamin is its outrageously effective anti-inflammatory properties. And shingles is all about inflammation.
  • L-lysine—This amino acid has been shown to inhibit the replication of the herpes virus (which causes chicken pox and, subsequently, shingles). Lysine is also used as a preventive at a dose of 1,000 mg per day. But, during a flare-up, I recommend 3,000 mg per day.
  • Oil of oregano—I recommend 1,500 mg per day. It’s good for alleviating pain and will help the sores dry up faster.
  • Olive leaf extract—1,500 mg per day. It supports the immune system, which will help the virus move through your system as quickly as possible.
  • Monolaurin—This is a long-chain fatty acid that has strong anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. I recommend 900 mg per day.

In addition, a nice warm oatmeal bath and cold compresses are also helpful in alleviating some of the painful symptoms of shingles.

But again, getting the vaccine will help spare you an infection in the first place. (Or at least lessen the severity of the virus.) And as an advocate for safe and effective forms of prevention—pharmaceutical or otherwise—this is one case where vaccination is worth considering.

References: 

  1. Kim MC, et al. “Herpes Zoster Increases the Risk of Stroke and Myocardial Infarction.”J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Jul 11;70(2):295-296. 
  2. American Heart Association. “Shingles vaccine may also reduce stroke risk.” Science Daily, 02/12/2020. (sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200212073522.htm)

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