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. This happens before a blister-like rash appears on your body or face, often in a strip on one side of your body. You also may have a fever, an upset stomach, headache, 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 or who are immunocompromised.
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 the shingles vaccine for all persons aged 50 years and older and those 19 years and older with weakened immune systems.
What vaccines can help prevent shingles?
There is currently one vaccine available in the U.S. to prevent shingles. Shingrix (RZV) was approved in 2017 and it is more than 90% effective in preventing shingles. With Shingrix, you get two shots between 2 and 6 months apart and protection lasts an estimated 4-5 years. Doctors recommend it for healthy people over 50 as well as those 19 years of age and older who are or will be immunodeficient or immunosuppressed due to disease or therapy..
An earlier vaccine called Zostavax was removed from the market in 2020. That vaccine used a weak form of the chickenpox virus to send your body’s immune system into action to fight the disease. Shingrix does not. If you received the Zostavax vaccine, it is recommended that you also receive Shingrix.
Should I get a vaccine?
Doctors say most healthy people over 50 should get Shingrix, as well as anyone 19 or older who are immunocompromised. It’s available at pharmacies as well as doctors’ offices. Most people have been exposed to chickenpox even if they didn’t actually develop symptoms.
You should get the Shingrix vaccine unless:
- You are allergic to any part of the vaccine
- Had a blood test that proves you never had chickenpox (Then you should receive the chicken pox vaccine.)
- Have shingles now
- Are breastfeeding or nursing.
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.
It’s also possible to have an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the 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?
Yes. While Shingrix is approved generally for people 50 and older, the FDA has also approved its use for those aged 19 years and older who are or will be at increased risk of shingles due to immunodeficiency or immunosuppression caused by known disease or therapy.
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.