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What is the Shingles Vaccine?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The shingles vaccine is a vaccine which is designed to prevent outbreaks of shingles, an extremely painful and sometimes very dangerous condition which affects the nervous system. In 2007, the shingles vaccine was recommended for all adults age 60 and older, except in cases where use of the vaccine would be contraindicated, as for instance in someone who is fighting cancer or who recently had a cancer which affected the lymphatic system.

Shingles is caused by the same virus which causes chickenpox in children. When people get chickenpox, the virus stays in their system even after the chickenpox vanishes, remaining latent. Under stress and other conditions, the virus may re-emerge, causing shingles. While both conditions are caused by the same virus, shingles is considerably more painful and dangerous than chickenpox, causing tingling sensations and a painful rash. Shingles can cause neurological complications, including blindness and deafness, and in some cases it can be deadly.

By taking this vaccine, people can greatly reduce the risk of developing the disease. The vaccine appears to be approximately 51% effective, making it less effective than some other vaccines. However, shingles is so debilitating that many doctors think the vaccine is worth it for patients. The vaccine also reduces the risk of neurological complications in patients who develop shingles. It has been certified as safe for use in people who cannot remember whether or not they have had chickenpox, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration, and it can also be used in people who have experienced shingles outbreaks in the past, although it should not be used during an active outbreak.

There are some situations in which the shingles vaccine is not appropriate. People who are allergic to gelatin should not use it, and likewise with people who have compromised immune systems, such as people taking steroids or immunosuppressive drugs. Pregnant women or women planning to be pregnant soon should also avoid the vaccine, and it's important to discuss the vaccine with your doctor to ensure that you are a good candidate, as you may have a condition or item in your medical history which would make it dangerous for you to take the vaccine.

The most common side effects of the shingles vaccine are swelling, itching, and redness around the vaccine site. These symptoms usually resolve within a few days. People for whom the vaccine is contraindicated may develop more severe reactions. It is not possible to transmit the virus as a result of vaccination, so vaccinated individuals do not need to avoid people at risk of developing chickenpox. It is also important to be aware that the shingles vaccine only protects against herpes zoster, the virus linked with chickenpox and shingles, not genital herpes.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon343382 — On Jul 29, 2013

We reported on a case of a healthy Canadian adult who was given the Zostavac shingles vaccine as a prophylactic measure in 2012 and immediately acquired shingles from the vaccine itself. The pharmaceutical company that made the drug, Merck Canada, took no interest in investigating, let alone explaining this catastrophic effect of their product. Neither did the governments of Canada or Ontario or the FDA in the United States, despite the questions we put to them about the need for further safety testing of their product or better warnings about potential adverse effects. No one informed the patient in our report that the vaccine in question contained 'live' virus, let alone that it could actually cause the very illness it was administered to prevent.

By anon37297 — On Jul 18, 2009

I would like to point out, that Zostavax can cause shingles. I was a healthy 64 year old male who received the Zostavax vaccine on 2/5/08. Ten days later, my doctor diagnosed me with "classic shingles". He put me on Valtrex for 7 days and 1 month later was still suffering with red spots on my (right) chest, severe pain in my right arm and shoulder, and severe itching. I notified Merck and my doctor also did! I read Merck's "double blind" studies, and nowhere does it simply say: this vaccine can cause you to contract shingles. I have all the documentation as well as pictures. Please caution anyone who wants to gamble with their health. I don't believe Merck is being as honest as they should regarding the safety of this vaccine.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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