You get shingles when the virus that may have given you chickenpox when you were young becomes active again. Doctors don’t know why this happens.
When the virus wakes up, it causes itching and tingling feelings in your skin that can last up to 5 days. Then blisters appear on your body or face, often in a strip on one side of your body. You also may have a fever, an upset stomach, headaches, and chills.
The rashes tend to go away within a month, but shingles can lead to long-term nerve damage and pain, especially in people over 50.
About 1 in 3 people in the US will get shingles in their lifetime, or about 1 million people a year. It can happen at any age, but you’re more likely to have it as you get older. That’s why doctors recommend a shingles vaccine for most people over 50.
What vaccines can help prevent shingles?
Doctors started using the first shingles vaccine, called Zostavax, in 2006. It was recommended for people over 60.
It uses a weak form of the chickenpox virus to send your body’s immune system into action to fight the disease. It lowers your chances of getting shingles by about 50% and your odds of long-term nerve damage by about 67%.
In 2017, a second vaccine, known as Shingrix (RZV), was approved. Doctors recommend it for people over 50. Unlike Zostavax, it does not use a live form of the chicken pox virus, and it is more than 90% effective in preventing shingles.
Zostavax is given in a single shot. With Shingrix, you get two shots between 2 and 6 months apart.
Protection from a shingles vaccine lasts about 5 years.
Should I get one of the vaccines?
Doctors say most healthy people over 50 should get Shingrix -- it’s available at pharmacies as well as doctors’ offices. Most people have been exposed to the chickenpox even if they didn’t actually develop symptoms.
All healthy adults age 50 or older should get the Shingrix vaccine unless:
- You are allergic to any part of the vaccine
- Had a blood test that proves you never had chicken pox (Then you should receive the chicken pox vaccine.)
- Have shingles now
- Are breastfeeding or nursing.
Zostavax may be an option for some people 60 years of age or older who are allergic to Shingrix or if Shingrix is not available. People with weakened immune systems should not get Zostavax. Wait at least 8 weeks before getting the Shingrix vaccine if you have just received Zostavax.
What are the side effects?
Shingrix can make the area where you get the shot swell or feel sore. Other effects include:
- Many people who get the vaccine have muscle aches, headaches, or feel tired.
- About 1 in 4 people have a fever or an upset stomach.
Younger people are more likely to have these side effects, and they typically last 2 or 3 days.
Zostavax may also lead to some mild reactions:
- About 1 in 3 people have itching, swelling, or redness around the area where they got the shot.
- Some people also get a headache, diarrhea, flu like symptoms or tiredness.
- Some people get a chickenpox-like rash near the area of the shot.
It’s also possible to have an allergic reaction to an ingredient in either vaccine. If you have problems breathing, feel your face or throat swelling, or feel weak or dizzy after the shot, call 911 and get medical help right away.
Can I get a shingles vaccine if I’m younger than 50?
No, Shingrix is approved only for people 50 and older, and Zostavax is approved only for those 60 and older.
Will Medicare or my health insurance pay for a shingles vaccine?
Medicare Part D covers the cost of a shingles vaccine. If you have private health insurance, check your plan. Some insurers will pay for it after age 50 and others at 60.