The Shingrix Vaccine: What You Need to Know

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash, and it’s estimated that one in three people will experience it in their lifetimes. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus responsible for chickenpox. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in your body and may reactivate to cause shingles later in life.  

Most people who experience shingles only have it once, but it’s possible to get it more than once. You cannot catch shingles from someone with the infection, but you can catch VZV, which could lead to shingles at a later time.

The risk of having shingles goes up with age, and people with compromised immune systems are more likely to be diagnosed with it. There is currently one vaccine that can help prevent shingles in the United States.

Why Get Vaccinated?

It’s estimated that up to 10%–18% of people who get shingles will have postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN develops in the areas where the shingles rash had been, even after the rash clears up. It can last for months or years after the rash goes away. The risk of PHN with shingles goes up with age, so getting the shingles vaccine is an effective way to protect yourself from this painful condition. 

Older woman getting injected with a vaccine by doctor in upper arm

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What to Know About Shingrix

The Shingrix vaccine strongly protects against shingles and PHN and has been proven to be 90% effective. It is recommended for adults 50 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), protection against shingles remains at 85% for at least the first four years after receiving the vaccine. 

Shingrix is a two-dose vaccine, and the second dose is usually given two–six months after the first one. There is no maximum age limit to receive Shingrix. Most primary care doctors and pharmacies offer it throughout the year. 

The Shingrix vaccine is a recombinant vaccine, which means it contains an inactivated form of the varicella-zoster virus but does not contain a live virus. With inactivated vaccines, the genetic material has been destroyed, or killed. This makes it safe for most adults, even people with a compromised immune system. 

Who Should Get the Shingrix Vaccine?

Shingrix is recommended for adults 50 years old and over and:

  • Those who have received the Zostavax vaccine, which is no longer available in the United States
  • Those who have had shingles in the past

Who Should Not Get the Shingrix Vaccine?

Shingrix is not recommended for:

  • Anyone with a history of a life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine
  • Women who are pregnant or nursing
  • Anyone with a current shingles infection
  • Those who have never been infected with chickenpox (These individuals should receive the chickenpox vaccine instead.)

If you are not sure if you have ever had chickenpox, the CDC recommends getting the shingles vaccine. It’s estimated that 99% of adults over age 40 have had chickenpox even if they don’t recall having the symptoms. 

Paying for Shingrix

The following health plans cover the Shingrix vaccine for adults age 50 and older:

  • Medicare Part D (co-pay depends on your plan)
  • Medicaid (depends on your state)
  • Private health insurance (possible co-pay)
  • Vaccine assistance programs 

Medicare Part B does not cover the shingles vaccine. Talk with your primary care doctor or local pharmacist to find out if your insurance covers the vaccine and how to obtain financial assistance, if needed. 

Potential Side Effects

As with any vaccine, the Shingrix vaccine comes with possible side effects. The most common side effect is soreness at the injection site. About 80% of those who receive the vaccine report mild to moderate arm soreness. You may also notice redness and some mild swelling at the injection site.

Other possible side effects include:

  • Tiredness
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Mild fever
  • Stomach upset

In the clinical trials for the vaccine, about one in six participants had side effects that were severe enough to prevent them from going about heir regular daily activities. The effects lasted about two–three days. 

If you develop uncomfortable side effects from your first dose of the vaccine, you still are encouraged to get the second dose so that you are fully protected from shingles and PHN. 

While rare, it is possible to experience a severe allergic reaction to the shingles vaccine. Signs of a serious reaction include:

  • Facial swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Racing heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness 

If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms after receiving a vaccine, call 911 or seek emergency treatment right away. 

Summary

The Shingrix vaccine is the best way to prevent shingles or PHN, which can cause pain so severe that it interferes with your daily life. However, it is not suitable for anyone who is pregnant, has an active shingles infection, has a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine, or has never had chickenpox before.

A Word From Verywell

Shingles is a painful rash that can lead to months to years of pain due to postherpetic neuralgia. It can activate at any time, and the best way to prevent it is with the Shingrix vaccine. If you are age 50 or older, talk with your doctor about scheduling the two doses. However, this vaccine is not safe for you if you have ever experienced a severe allergic reaction to Shingrix or any of its components or if you are pregnant or nursing. If you are currently infected with shingles, wait until you feel better before scheduling the vaccine. 

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Shingles (herpes zoster). Updated April 29, 2021. 

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Shingles (Herpes Zoster). Updated June 26, 2019.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingrix shingles vaccination. Updated January 25, 2018.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine information statement | Shingles recombinant. Updated October 30, 2019. 

  5. Shingrix. Side Effects.

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