The shingles vaccine is one that is often overlooked, especially with the discussion of both flu and COVID-19 vaccines for this year’s flu season. But the shingles vaccine, known as Shingrix, also deserves attention. Shingrix is available to prevent or minimize an outbreak of shingles and its effects.

What is shingles? 

Shingles is a painful rash. It is most often located on the trunk of the body (below the neck and above the waist) but can also occur elsewhere.  

It is caused by a “reactivation” of the chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus). The virus can remain dormant in the body for decades after a chickenpox infection. It is not known what triggers the virus to reactivate and cause shingles.

The signs and symptoms of shingles

The reactivation of the virus occurs along the nerves of the body, and causes the following common signs of shingles: 

  • A rash that appears as a string of small blisters and is found on one side of the body.  It is most concerning when it occurs on the face and near the eyes. If the rash and infection involve the eyes, a serious complication called keratitis can occur, which could result in damage to the cornea or vision loss. The rash may also cause itching and burning.
  • Pain is the most common symptom. The pain from the rash can last long after the skin has returned to normal. This condition is known as postherpetic neuralgia. 
  • Fatigue may also accompany the rash and pain. 

How is shingles treated?

It is important that you see your doctor as soon as possible if you are experiencing the signs of shingles. Shingles is typically treated with a course of anti-viral medication and pain relievers.

Can you prevent shingles?

Yes, you can prevent and lower your risk for shingles with the Shingrix vaccine. Shingrix is a two-dose vaccination, with the second dose given between two and six months after the first dose.  No booster shots are recommended.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the shingles vaccines for most healthy adults ages 50 and older. To see if the shingles vaccination is right for you, be sure to discuss this with your primary care doctor. Getting the vaccine can help prevent an outbreak of shingles and minimize the complications should you get the virus.

The shingles vaccine is a prevention measure and is not used to treat an active outbreak.  If you experience a shingles infection, you will need to wait before receiving the vaccine, and you should discuss that with your doctor.

What are the side effects of the shingles vaccine?

The shingles vaccine is safe and is generally well-tolerated. Side effects may occur, and may include:

  • a sore arm
  • muscle aches 
  • fatigue 

These symptoms usually last for about 24 hours, particularly following the second dose. 

I’ve never had chickenpox. Do I still need the shingles vaccine?

Both shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus, known as varicella zoster virus. Since shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, many people wonder if they need a vaccine if they never had chickenpox. 

The fact is the virus that causes shingles and chickenpox is very contagious. If you have not previously had chickenpox you can still experience them as an adult. When an adult has chickenpox, the reaction may be stronger than is typical for children. It may last longer, be more severe, and may also be accompanied by flu-like symptoms. 

But the shingles vaccine will not prevent chicken pox in adults if you did not have chickenpox. The CDC recommends that adults who have not had chickenpox in the past receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine. Talk with your doctor about it.

For more tips to keep you and your family safe and health, visit the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog. 

Kenneth Wells, MD

Kenneth Wells, MD

Kenneth Wells, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician Jamestown Primary Care, a Coastal Medical Practice.