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decision pointShingles: Should I Get a Shot to Prevent Shingles?

Your options

  • Get a shingles shot
  • Don't get a shingles shot

Key points to remember

  • Shingles can be very painful, especially for people older than 60, in whom it is more common.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles shot (vaccine). Most adults ages 50 and older can get the shot.
  • The shot greatly lowers your chances of getting shingles. If you get shingles anyway, you are less likely to have the long-term pain that can occur after shingles than if you hadn't had the shot.
  • You shouldn't get the shot if you are pregnant or have a weak immune system.
  • If you’ve already had shingles, you are not likely to get it again. But some people do.

What is shingles?

Shingles is an infection that occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox starts up again in your body. Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but it is most common in older adults.

Shingles usually causes a rash that can be very painful. The rash is usually on your back or chest and lasts from 2 to 4 weeks. For some people, the severe pain continues long after the rash clears up.

Shingles can be very hard on older people. The pain can affect their quality of life. For some, the pain lasts for a year or longer.

What are your chances of getting shingles?

Only people who have had chickenpox can get shingles. But most people have had chickenpox, so shingles is fairly common.

Experts say that out of 100 people, about 30 will get shingles sometime in their lives.1 And the risk is higher for people age 60 and older. Older people are also more likely to have severe pain with shingles.

Most people who get shingles will not get it again. But some people get shingles more than once.

How well does the shot work?

The shot greatly lowers your chances of getting shingles. Research shows that:2

  • The shot can lower your chances of getting shingles by about half.
  • If you get the shot and still get shingles, you are likely to have much less pain and for a much shorter time.
  • The shot works even better for people ages 60 to 69. In that age group, it lowers the chances of getting shingles by about two-thirds.
  • Although the shot doesn't prevent shingles quite as well in people age 70 or older, it does make shingles less severe more than half the time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles shotform.gif(What is a PDF document?). Most adults ages 50 and older can get the shot.

What are the risks and side effects of the shingles shot?

Side effects include:

  • Redness, swelling, or soreness at the spot where the needle went in.
  • A headache.
  • A high fever or serious allergic reaction (but this is rare).

Getting the shot has some risks. For example:

  • You might get shingles anyway. But it probably won't be as painful or last as long.
  • You may need another shot later in life. Doctors don't know how long the shot lasts.

You shouldn't get the shot if:

  • You have a weak immune system.
  • You are ill with more than a mild cold. This includes having a fever of 101.3°F (38.5°C) or higher.
  • You are allergic to gelatin or neomycin, which are ingredients in the shingles vaccine. Neomycin is an antibiotic that is used in first-aid ointments such as Neosporin, in some eye drops, and in certain underarm deodorants.
  • You are pregnant or you might be pregnant.

Some people worry about the preservatives used in some vaccines. The shingles vaccine does not contain any preservatives.

Why might your doctor recommend that you get a shingles shot?

  • You are 50 years or older.
  • The shot can lower your chances of getting shingles by about half.2
  • If you get the shot and still get shingles, you are likely to have less pain for a shorter time.2
Get a shingles shot Get a shingles shot

What is usually involved?

  • A needle and syringe will be used to give you the shot, probably in your arm.

What are the benefits?

  • Your chances of getting shingles will be much lower.
  • Even if you get shingles, it's likely to be much less painful and not last as long.

What are the risks and side effects?

  • The shot might make your arm red and sore where the needle went in.
  • You might get shingles anyway.
  • You may need another shot later in life. Doctors don't yet know how long the shingles shot lasts.
  • You might have a serious reaction to the shot, but this is rare.
Don't get a shingles shot Don't get a shingles shot

What is usually involved?

  • You do nothing and accept the fact that your risk of getting shingles is higher.

What are the benefits?

  • You avoid the possible side effects of the vaccine.

What are the risks and side effects?

  • You have a higher chance of getting shingles, which can be very painful and last a long time.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

For more information, see the topics:

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to get a shingles shot

Reasons not to get a shot

I want to lower my chances of getting shingles.

I would rather take my chances without getting a shot.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm afraid of the pain that shingles can cause.

I'm not afraid of shingles pain.

More important
Equally important
More important

Getting a shot doesn't bother me.

I don't like getting shots.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Getting a shingles shot

NOT getting the shot

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

Check the facts

The shingles shot works well to prevent shingles.

  • Yes That's right. The shot greatly lowers your chances of getting shingles.
  • No Sorry, that's wrong. The shingles shot greatly lowers your chances of getting shingles.
  • I'm not sure It may help to go back and read "Get the facts." The shingles shot greatly lowers your chances of getting shingles.

If I get a shot, I could still get shingles.

  • Yes You're right. But even if you do get shingles, your symptoms are likely to be much milder.
  • No Sorry, that's wrong. You could still get shingles, but your chances are a lot lower with the shot.
  • I'm not sure It may help to go back and read "Get the facts." You could still get shingles, but your chances are a lot lower with the shot.

Experts recommend the shingles shot.

  • Yes You're right. The CDC recommends one dose of this shot.
  • No Sorry, that's wrong. The CDC recommends one dose of this shot.
  • I'm not sure It may help to go back and read "Get the facts." The CDC recommends one dose of this shot.

Decide what's next

Do you understand the options available to you?

Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.

Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Personal stories about considering a shingles shot

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

I talked to my doctor about the shingles shot and I think I'm going to get it. My wife had shingles 2 years ago, and she was really in a lot of pain. If I can avoid that by getting a shot, it will really be worth it to me.

Abel, 65

I'm not going to get a shot, at least not right now. I don't like to take medicines of any kind if I don't have to. And my doctor said the shot isn't a guarantee. I could get shingles anyway.

Hattie, 60

I'm definitely getting a shot, even though I've already had shingles. I know it's rare to get shingles a second time, but I do not want to go through that again.

Romana, 69

  • Shingles

Citations

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). Herpes zoster disease-Q&As for providers (shingles). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/shingles/dis-faqs-hcp.htm.

  2. Oxman MN, et al. (2005). A vaccine to prevent herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia in older adults. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(22): 2271–2284.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christine Hahn, MD - Epidemiology
Last Revised May 27, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 27, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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