Shingles (herpes zoster) vaccine for adults over 50

by Kaiser Permanente |
Older woman sitting in her kitchen.

What Is Shingles?

Shingles (also called herpes zoster or zoster) is a painful rash of small, red spots or blisters. These usually appear on one side of the body, head, or face. In addition to the rash, symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and an upset stomach.

What Causes Shingles?

The same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella) causes shingles. After a person has had chickenpox, the virus lives in an inactive state in the body's nerve cells. The virus can become active again years later, leading to shingles. You can't catch shingles from another person; however, in rare cases a person can get chickenpox if exposed to someone with shingles (this can happen if the exposed person has never had either chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine).

Is Shingles Dangerous?

Shingles usually isn't dangerous and will clear up on its own. In most cases, the pain from shingles will get better when the rash starts to heal. However, in some people, the pain can last for months, even after the rash has gone away. This is known as postherpetic neuralgia. In very rare cases, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation, or death.

Because the zoster virus cannot be eliminated from the body, treatment for shingles includes taking medicines to help ease pain and control symptoms until the condition clears up. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first herpes zoster vaccine (Zostavax) to help people lower their chances of getting shingles; in 2017, a new more-effective vaccine (Shingrix) was approved and the old vaccine was discontinued in the United States in 2020.

How Long Does Protection Last?

We know that for most people, the shingles vaccine protects for at least four years; however, we expect that protection will last much longer. At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn't recommend patients receive any booster dose after the first two doses of the shingles vaccine.

Are There Any Side Effects From the Vaccine?

Common side effects from the shingles vaccine include pain, redness, soreness, or swelling at the site of the injection, or other symptoms such as headache, muscle aches, fever, shivering, fatigue. People who have one of these reactions after the first dose of vaccine can still get the second dose. Serious side effects from the shingles vaccine are rare.

Who Should Get the Shingles Vaccine?

You should get the new shingles vaccine if you are age 50 years or older. This includes people who have already had a dose of the older shingles vaccine (Zostavax), have a history of shingles or other chronic medical conditions, do not have a known history of chickenpox, or have mild immune suppression.

Who Shouldn't Get the Shingles Vaccine?

You should NOT get the new shingles vaccine if you have a history of severe allergic reaction to any component of this vaccine. In addition, women who might be pregnant and people with a current outbreak of shingles should wait until these conditions have resolved before getting the vaccine.

Is the Cost of the Vaccine Covered by Insurance?

Coverage may vary by plan. To find out if your benefit plan covers the cost of the Shingrix vaccine, refer to your coverage agreement.