Medical Review By: Ted Schiff, MD
If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk of shingles. That’s because the virus that causes chickenpox, varicella zoster virus, lives in the body forever. Usually it stays dormant, but occasionally it reappears later in life in the form of shingles.
Shingles might start with a burning or tingling sensation on the skin. From there it can progress to severe pain, headaches and a rash. The illness can last several weeks. Some people who develop shingles go on to experience long-term nerve pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia.
If you know anyone who has had shingles, you’re probably motivated to avoid suffering a bout of it yourself. The shingles vaccine can help you do just that.
Who should get a shingles vaccine?
As the immune system weakens with age, the risk of shingles increases. That’s why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles vaccine for most adults age 50 or older.
The CDC recommends vaccination even if you’ve had shingles before to help prevent another outbreak in the future, though most people who gets shingles only get it once.
If you’ve ever had a serious allergic reaction to a vaccine, consult with your primary care doctor before getting the shingles vaccine. Delay getting it if you:
- currently have chickenpox or shingles
- received the chickenpox vaccine in the previous eight weeks
- feel sick and have a fever
- are pregnant or breastfeeding
Not sure if you had chickenpox as a child? You can get the shingles vaccine anyway. But if you’d like to know for certain, you can take a blood test to see if you have antibodies to the virus. If you don’t, it means you never had chickenpox. In that case, ask your doctor if you should get the chickenpox vaccine instead.
When in doubt, ask your doctor about the timing of the vaccine, as well as pros and cons of getting vaccinated.
Can I get a shingles vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine?
You can get both vaccines, but not at the same time. Because COVID-19 vaccines are relatively new, there’s not enough data on how combining vaccines might affect the safety and effectiveness of either vaccine.
If you get one vaccine, the CDC recommends waiting 14 days before getting the other. But if you get them closer together, it’s fine to complete each series on schedule.
Which shingles vaccine will I get?
The Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine) is the only shingles vaccine currently in use in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Shingrix in 2017 for use in adults age 50 and over.
Shingrix is significantly more effective than Zostavax, a vaccine that was discontinued in 2020. If you previously had the Zostavax vaccine, you can still get the Shingrix vaccine.
You’ll get the injection in the muscle of your upper arm. Full vaccination takes two doses, spaced out two to six months.
What are the shingles vaccine side effects?
Side effects are par for the course as your body responds to the shingles vaccine. Some people are sidelined for two or three days. Younger adults are more likely to experience side effects than older adults since their immune systems tend to be stronger and react more robustly to vaccines.
Some people have side effects only after the second shot, while others experience reactions with both shots. Possible side effects include:
- redness or swelling at the injection site
- sore arm
- fever, chills
- upset stomach, nausea
Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help.
Serious side effects are extremely rare and usually stem from an allergic reaction. If you experience hives, swelling of the throat or face or trouble breathing, seek emergency medical care right away.
In March 2021, the FDA required a new warning label on Shingrix after one study found an increase in the risk of developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome within 42 days of receiving the vaccine. Guillain-Barré causes muscle weakness and, in some cases, paralysis. Most people fully recover, but some have permanent nerve damage. According to the FDA, the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.
How long does protection last?
With two doses, Shingrix is more than 97% effective for adults aged 50 to 69, and 91% effective for people 70 and older.
Protection holds at more than 85% for at least four years, but many experts believe that the vaccine likely offers much longer protection. No booster shot is recommended at this time.
How much does the shingles vaccine cost?
Shingrex is covered by some health plans but not all. It is not covered by Medicare Part A or Part B. In most cases, it’s covered by Medicare prescription drug plans (Part D).
The cost may be covered under Medicaid or private insurance, but copays may apply. Under the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance policies must cover preventive care in full, and this includes vaccinations. Rules may differ based on age and provider network. Check with your insurer first so you won’t be caught off guard.
Without insurance, it can cost as much as $300 to get both doses. GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Shingrix, offers vaccine assistance programs for those who qualify.
Where can I get a shingles vaccine?
You can get a shingles vaccine wherever you get other vaccines, including your doctor’s office or a pharmacy. Call your favorite pharmacy to find out if the shingles vaccine is in stock and whether you need an appointment to get one.
Article written by: Ann Pietrangelo, an author and freelance writer specializing in health and wellness.