The herpes zoster vaccine is a live virus vaccination for older adults, designed to help protect against developing shingles or the complicated post-herpetic neuralgia, which can occur after shingles. It prevents shingles, which is a long-term complication of having had chicken pox in childhood and still carrying the virus in the body, as all people do, about 50% of the time. Post-herpetic neuralgia, a very painful complication of shingles, can be prevented about 70% of the time with the vaccine.
As people age, the risk of getting shingles increases, and recommendations by most medical agencies, like the US Centers for Disease Control, is that people receive the herpes zoster vaccine when they are 60. Further booster shots may be recommended every five to ten years. There is no clear consensus on exactly how long protection from the shot lasts.
Unless people have some reason why they shouldn’t get the shot, even if they don’t know if they’ve had chicken pox, it’s advisable to get the shingles vaccination. Research into this area suggests that 99% of people show they’ve been exposed to chicken pox by the time they’ve reached the age of 60, and there appears to be little harm in getting the vaccine. If people are very sure they’ve never had chicken pox, some doctors recommend getting the varicella vaccine first and then six months to a year later, getting the herpes zoster vaccine.
While the vaccine may reduce the risk of developing shingles, it doesn’t stop an active case of it or prevent shingles developing into post-herpetic neuralgia. It works best when administered prior to shingles occurring. It might have some limited prophylactic success if given directly after exposure to chicken pox, but even in these instances, the varicella vaccination would probably be more appropriate, if a person has never had chicken pox. Also, there are many herpes viruses and this vaccination only addresses shingles that results from dormant chicken pox; it is not a vaccine for the sexually transmitted forms of herpes.
There are people in risk groups who shouldn’t get the herpes zoster vaccine. Since this is a live virus, people with compromised immunity are usually advised not to get the vaccination. Those allergic to inactive ingredients in the shot like gelatin or neomycin are also advised to avoid this vaccination. Allergic reaction can occur, even if people didn’t know they have previous allergies, and people should get medical help right away if they have trouble breathing, wheezing, hives, or swelling of the face, lips, and tongue after receiving the vaccine.
For most people, a herpes zoster vaccine is pretty simple. It’s usually delivered in the arm, and it might cause some soreness, a little redness, itchiness or inflammation at the shot site. Sometimes people also report a headache, though this is pretty rare. While the shot doesn’t guarantee avoidance of shingles, it can elevate protection, and most doctors highly recommend this vaccination to their older adult patients.