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Doctors: More younger people getting shingles

Shingles vaccine in short supply as demand increases

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – At least 1 million people get shingles every year in the United States, and 1 in 3 will get it in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. So once you've had chickenpox, the virus is in your body and you can develop shingles.

But even if you've never had chickenpox, a person with shingles can pass the virus to anyone who isn't immune to chickenpox.

This usually happens with direct contact with the open sores from a shingles rash.

But instead of shingles, the virus will produce chickenpox.

Excruciating pain

News4Jax anchor/reporter Scott Johnson suffered from shingles in October.

Shingles is more common in adults older than 50, but that doesn't mean younger people won't get shingles. News4Jax found several people in our newsroom who've contracted shingles years before they turned 50 -- including anchor/reporter Scott Johnson.

In mid-October, while anchoring on The Morning Show, Johnson was suffering from shingles and was in excruciating pain.

"I was in agony that whole newscast," Johnson recalled of working Oct. 12. "I was sitting like, 'I can't move. I can't bend my neck. I can't turn my neck. I can't bend.' It just hurt."

Johnson said his shingles started as a small, hard, painful welt that developed into a red rash down his neck.  

"I saw shingles in a medical Google search, but it didn't really cross my mind, and then as the days went on and I thought it might just pass, it didn't pass," Johnson said. "It was five days, and I was like, 'I got to go somewhere.'"

He went to the doctor and got a quick diagnosis.

"I went into one of those walk-in clinics and the doctor was like, 'It's shingles.' I had it on half my face," Johnson said. "It's still healing right now."

Scott Johnson's shingles is still healing more than a month later.

Not on their radar

While Johnson is in his early 40s, shingles typically affects people older than 50. The risk continues to increase with age. Some experts believe that half of the people who live to 85 years old will get shingles at some point. 

But for people younger than 50, it's typically not on their radar. Dr. Craig Dolven, with Orange Park Medical Center, said it should be.

"The problem now is that people are getting shingles at a younger age," Dolven said.

Dolven said in rare cases shingles develops from the chickenpox vaccine even if the patient never got chickenpox. The vaccine is a live virus that can leave people susceptible to shingles.

"You get the chickenpox vaccine, it's a little live virus, so you're getting a little of that in your system," Dolven said.

Dolven said people who are vaccinated are still better off because they get a milder cause of chickenpox or shingles in most cases. But no vaccine offers a 100 percent guarantee.

Shingles can be triggered by stress or anything that weakens your immune system. Johnson said he'd been working outside in the heat the day before the welt popped up, and he was physically exhausted.  He said he wishes he'd taken the initiative to get a diagnosis sooner.

"If they could have stopped it sooner, it would not have been so miserable," Johnson said. "It was two weeks of misery."

Shingles vaccine

Symptoms of shingles include a painful, blistering rash on one side of the body. It attacks the nerves under the skin, which is why it's so painful. Sufferers might also feel tingling or numbness.

For people 50 and older, there's a way to reduce the risk of getting shingles by more than 90 percent.

"There was a major breakthrough in medicine this year," Dolven said. "When you think about it, this is one way patients can eliminate having shingles."

Dolven knows what these lesions that attack the nerves can do.

"It's the pain, the neuropathy, and some people have problems with their eyes and some people have problems with their ears after having shingles," Dolven said.

Dolven speaks with great confidence about the shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which is 90 percent effective at preventing shingles.

After the CDC designated Shingrix as the preferred shingles vaccine, demand prompted a shortage.

The CDC recommends two doses, two to six months apart, for adults age 50 and over, but the shortage has made getting the second dose within the recommended window difficult for some people.

Dolven said if you're having trouble finding the second dose, don't fret. It's still recommended to get the vaccine as soon as you can get it.

"The CDC says go ahead and give it to them if they're outside of that window and it should work just as good," Dolven explained. 

If you want to see where the Shingrix vaccine is available, there's a vaccine locator. Simply put in your ZIP code and it will show you pharmacies where the vaccine is available.

About the Author:

Anchor on The Morning Show team and reporter specializing on health issues.