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Shingles Vaccine

Picture of ShinglesAre you thinking about getting the shingles vaccine? Maybe you've read about the shingles vaccine in the news, or friends have talked about it. If you're over age 50, the shingles vaccine may help you avoid getting shingles. And if you've had shingles, the shingles vaccine may help prevent a recurrence.

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a painful skin rash, often with blisters that's caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. In people who have had chickenpox, the virus is never fully cleared from the body. Instead, the virus remains dormant in the nerve tissues. When physical or emotional stresses to the body weaken the immune system, the virus reactivates and spreads along the nerve fibers to the particular area of skin supplied by the involved nerve.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will cover preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, at no cost to you. Learn more.

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The first sign of shingles is often burning or tingling pain, or sometimes numbness or itch, in one particular location on only one side of the body. After a few days, the rash develops.

What Does the Shingles Vaccine Do?

The shingles vaccine, Zostavax, contains a weakened chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus). The shingles vaccine helps stimulate your immune system to battle disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus, reducing the risk of getting shingles in people aged 50 and older. In scientific studies, the shingles vaccine reduces the risk of developing shingles by about 50%.

Findings show that the shingles vaccine also helps people who go on to develop shingles have shorter periods of nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is extremely painful and can last anywhere from 30 days to months or even years after the rash has resolved. The nerve pain associated with shingles can be so severe in some people that it disrupts their lives.

The shingles vaccine helps prevent shingles in the person receiving the immunization. But because shingles is a contagious viral infection, the shingles vaccine also works to stop the spread of the virus just like childhood immunizations for varicella or measles, mumps, and rubella.

If a person with shingles passes the virus to someone who has never had chickenpox, the newly infected person will develop chickenpox, not shingles.

Who Should Get the Shingles Vaccine?

Shingles most commonly occurs in people 50 years old or older, people who have medical conditions that keep the immune system from working properly, or people who receive immunosuppressive drugs.

The vaccine has been approved for people age 50 or older. As for recommendations, the CDC recommends a single dose of the vaccine for people aged 60 and older, even if they've already had a bout of shingles. Since the majority of older Americans had chickenpox as children, millions of people are vulnerable to shingles.

Who Should Not Get the Shingles Vaccine?

According to the CDC, don't get a shingles vaccine if you have the following:

  • A life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or any other component of the shingles vaccine. Tell your doctor if you have any severe allergies
  • A weakened immune system because of:
  • HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system
  • Treatment with drugs that affect the immune system, such as steroids
  • Cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy
  • A history of cancer affecting the bone marrow or lymphatic system, such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Active, untreated tuberculosis
  • Pregnancy (or might be pregnant). Women should not become pregnant until at least three months after getting shingles vaccine.

WebMD Medical Reference

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