A shingles vaccine is available for adults 60 years of age and older in the United States. The vaccine prevents much of the pain and suffering caused by shingles when the virus that causes chickenpox reawakens in those with aging or compromised immune systems.
- The disease
What is shingles?
Shingles is a disease caused by the reawakening (or reactivation) of chickenpox virus. Shingles most often occurs in elderly people and people with weakened immune systems. Common symptoms of shingles include a rash, usually along a nerve path, and severe pain. Sometimes the pain can last for months and be so debilitating that typical daily routines are disrupted.
How common is shingles?
Every year in the United States shingles affects between 500,000 and 1 million people. Individuals have a 20-30 percent chance of getting shingles during their lifetime. About half of the people who live to 85 years old will get shingles.
Is shingles dangerous?
Although people do not die from shingles, they can be severely hurt by it. Perhaps the most common and debilitating complication is persistent, long-lived pain. The pain can be so severe that it leads to sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness and depression, weight loss, anorexia, interference with basic daily activities such as dressing, bathing and eating, and an inability to participate in normal social activities. The pain can last for months or even years. Alongside the pain of labor and the pain of corneal abrasions, the pain caused by shingles is among the most debilitating pains in medicine. The pain of shingles can be so relentlessly debilitating that it can be a cause for suicide.
About 15 of every 100 people with shingles have blisters that are associated with nerves around the eyes. This can result in reduced vision and blindness.
Scarring and concurrent bacterial infections can also occur at the site of the rash
Is shingles contagious?
No. You cannot get shingles from someone who has shingles; however, because shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, you can get chickenpox from someone with shingles if you have not had chickenpox or a chickenpox vaccine.
How can you avoid shingles?
Once you have had chickenpox, you can get shingles. People who are 60 years of age or older can decrease their chance of getting shingles by getting the shingles vaccine.
- The vaccine
How is the shingles vaccine made?
The shingles vaccine is a more concentrated version of the chickenpox vaccine currently given to children. Both are live, weakened forms of chickenpox virus. The shingles vaccine contains about 14 times the amount of weakened chickenpox virus than the vaccine for children. This amount of virus is needed to obtain a protective response in the aging immune systems of older adults. Due to the differences in the quantities of virus in each vaccine, they cannot be used interchangeably.
Does the shingles vaccine work?
Yes, the vaccine protects more than half of the people from getting shingles and about 67 of every 100 people from getting shingles pain.
Is the shingles vaccine safe?
Yes, common side effects include redness, pain, swelling and itching at the injection site. A small group of recipients may also get a rash at the injection site.
Who should get the shingles vaccine?
People who are 60 years of age and older should receive a single dose of the shingles vaccine.
- Other questions you might have
Can my grandfather with shingles give my baby daughter chickenpox?
Yes, although people with shingles cannot pass shingles to someone else, they can pass chickenpox virus to others through direct contact with the rash. So if your baby has not yet had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, she could become infected with the virus and develop chickenpox.
Unlike chickenpox that can be passed to others through coughs or sneezes, people with shingles can only pass the virus to others through direct contact with the rash. If the rash has yet to develop or has crusted, the patient cannot transmit the virus. Similarly, people who still have pain without the rash are no longer able to transmit the virus.
Do I need to get the shingles vaccine if I already had shingles?
Although you are less likely to get shingles if you have had them, there is still a chance that you could, so the shingles vaccine can still be of benefit. Up to 5 of every 100 people will get shingles more than once.
Can I still get the shingles vaccine if I don’t remember having chickenpox?
Yes, existing data suggests that almost everyone older than 40 years of age has been exposed to chickenpox, so even if you do not remember having chickenpox, you can get the shingles vaccine.
Where can I get a shingles vaccine?
If your primary care physician does not offer the shingles vaccine, you can check with your local health department and pharmacies in your area. You can also use the vaccine locator on the shingles vaccine manufacturer’s website.
Can people who got the shingles vaccine be around babies?
Yes, people who had the shingles vaccine can be around babies. However, if they develop a rash at the site of the injection, they should make sure the baby does not come into contact with the rash if the baby has not been immunized against chickenpox or has not had chickenpox disease.
Can people who got the chickenpox vaccine get shingles?
While people who got the chickenpox vaccine can get shingles caused by the vaccine virus, the frequency and severity of shingles is much less than that following natural infection.
- Relative risks and benefits
- Debilitating and long-lasting pain
- Scarring or infection at the site of the rash
- Reduced vision or blindness if blisters occur in nerves around the eye (15 of 100 people)
- Pain, redness, swelling and itching at the injection site
- Rash at injection site
Plotkin SA, Orenstein W, and Offit PA. Zoster vaccine in Vaccines, 6th Edition, 2012, 969-980.