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What You Need to Know About the Shingles Vaccine

What You Need to Know About the Shingles Vaccine

Vaccination is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to avoid this painful infection.

Up to one out of every three people will develop shingles at some point in their life. This painful infection is especially common after age 50, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over 50 get the shingles vaccine.

We asked Vinod Nambudiri, MD, an internal medicine doctor and dermatologist from Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to weigh in on why it’s so important for seniors to receive this vaccination. Here’s what you need to know about the shingles vaccine, plus tips on when to schedule yours.

What is shingles?
Shingles is a painful rash that’s caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, called varicella zoster, says Dr. Nambudiri. “Most individuals are exposed to the varicella zoster virus as children and develop a widespread rash known as chickenpox,” he explains. “The chickenpox rash is characterized by tiny, fluid-filled blisters or vesicles, which appear all over the body. After the chickenpox infection clears, the virus stays dormant in your system.”

The virus may reactivate later in life for a number of possible reasons—for example, if you develop a weak immune system from a condition like HIV or leukemia, or from being under a great deal of stress. With shingles, the same fluid-filled blisters will show up once again, but they’ll usually appear in a band-like formation and stay confined to one area of your body. When the blisters open, the varicella zoster virus that causes shingles may be spread to others. 

The number one symptom of shingles is pain, but the infection may also cause fevers, body aches, headaches and chills. Even after your symptoms resolve, it’s common for nerve pain, called postherpetic neuralgia, to linger in the area where the rash had been.

Why is it so important to get the shingles vaccine?
Getting vaccinated reduces your risk of shingles by 90 percent and limits the severity of shingles if you do develop it. For example, the vaccine cuts your risk of postherpetic neuralgia by 90 percent.

Still not convinced that you should get vaccinated? By preventing a shingles outbreak, you also avoid spreading varicella zoster to loved ones who are at risk for life-threatening complications of the virus. That includes:

  • Pregnant women who aren’t immune to varicella zoster
  • Newborn babies
  • People with a weak immune system or those undergoing cancer treatment

Who should—and should not—get the shingles vaccine?
People over age 50 should get vaccinated, whether or not they’ve already had chickenpox. If someone has already had shingles, they should receive the vaccine as well, since some people may experience more than one outbreak, explains Nambudiri.

A newer, more effective version of the vaccine was approved in 2017. The CDC recommends that you get it even if you received the previous shot. 

People who shouldn’t get vaccinated include:

  • People who are allergic to gelatin or an antibiotic called neomycin
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Anyone who currently has shingles 

The CDC hasn’t determined yet if the shingles vaccine is safe for those with weakened immune systems, for example from conditions like HIV or leukemia. 

If you have a fever over 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit or an active shingles infection, wait until it’s resolved before getting the vaccination.

“And anyone with allergies to prior vaccines should be sure to tell their physician before being vaccinated for shingles,” adds Nambudiri.

Does the shingles vaccine have any side effects?
Many people have some soreness or irritation at the injection site, and some will have a headache or muscle pains. However, these side effects usually last only a couple of days. 

How can you get vaccinated?
Ask your family doctor about the shingles vaccine at your next appointment if you’re 50 or older. He or she may administer it in their office or refer you to a local pharmacy or health clinic.

If your insurance doesn’t cover it, you can contact the vaccine manufacturer, called Merck, to request financial assistance.

Medically reviewed in January 2019. Updated in August 2019.

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