Who Needs the Shingles Vaccine?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Senior man receiving shot in the arm

Shingles is a painful rash that can last from 3 to 5 weeks. Severe pain can last for months or even years after the rash fades, especially in older people. Getting vaccinated can help you avoid all of these problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles vaccine Shingrix for people 50 and older. Shingrix is also approved for people 18 years and older whose immune system is weakened or compromised by a medical condition or immune-suppressing medications (such as anti-rejection drugs or many chemotherapy medications).

Shingrix is a highly effective, recombinant vaccine that does not contain the shingles virus. Recombinant means the vaccine contains only part of the virus. With Shingrix, it is a small amount of a shingle virus protein. You receive two injections of Shingrix into your upper arm muscle, spaced 2 to 6 months apart. If the shingles virus in your body ever reactivates, your immune system is primed and easily fights off shingles. Here are the pros and cons of getting shingles vaccine.

Reasons to Get the Shingles Vaccine

The pain of shingles is certainly something you want to avoid. If you still need other reasons to get the shingles vaccine, think about this:

  • About 25% of people who had chickenpox will get shingles and the risk goes up with age. If you are 85 or older, your risk of shingles is about 50%.
  • Getting the shingles vaccine can cut your chances of getting shingles by 97% if you're 50 to 69 years old and by 91% if you're 70 or older. In people 70 and older, the shingles vaccine remained 85% protective four years after vaccination.
  • If you do get shingles, you are less likely to have lasting pain after the rash is gone.

Also, 99% of people born before 1980 has had chickenpox, putting them at risk of developing shingles in the future. The CDC suggests you get the vaccine even if you don’t remember having chickenpox as a child. You should also get Shingrix if you were previously immunized with Zostavax, a shingles vaccine that is no longer available.

Reasons to Not Get the Shingles Vaccine

Not everyone should get the shingles vaccine. You should not be vaccinated if:

  • You have had a severe allergic reaction to any components in the vaccine. (Shingrix has special types of fat molecules to improve how it works.) Talk with your doctor if you have had any reaction to vaccines in the past.
  • You are pregnant or may be pregnant, or you are breastfeeding.
  • You have active shingles. The vaccine is not a treatment. It is only good for prevention.
  • You test negative for immunity to varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles. A negative test result means you have not had chickenpox and you should get the chickenpox vaccine, which is a live, but weakened virus vaccine. (It is not necessary to screen for immunity prior to getting Shingrix.)

Other Things You Should Know

The vaccine seems to work best for people between ages 50 and 69. But anyone 50 and older can get it. Also, the vaccine can be expensive. Be sure to check that your insurance covers it. For those on Medicare, Part D covers it, Part B does not. Medicaid may or may not cover the cost, so check with your plan in advance. 

Other things to know include:

  • Side effects of the vaccine can include redness, soreness, swelling or itching at the site of the shot, which may last 2 to 3 days. Because the vaccine activates your immune system, other temporary side effects may include headache, body aches, chills, fever, nausea and fatigue. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help relieve some side effects.
  • The vaccine does not contain any virus. You cannot get chickenpox or shingles from the vaccine.
  • If you already had shingles, the CDC suggests getting the vaccine anyway. There's a slight risk that shingles may come back.
  • You can receive Shingrix if you are taking low-dose medicine to suppress the immune system, anticipating immunosuppression, or recovering from an immunocompromising condition.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 5
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Shingles. National Institute on Aging. http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/shingles
  2. Shingles Vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/shingles/public/shingrix/
  3. Shingrix. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/vaccines/shingrix