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A Look at Each Vaccine: Shingles Vaccine

A shingles vaccine is available for adults 60 years of age and older in the U.S. The vaccine prevents much of the pain and suffering caused by shingles when the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates in those with aging or compromised immune systems.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a disease caused by the reactivation of chickenpox virus. Shingles most often occurs in elderly people and people with weakened immune systems. Common symptoms of shingles include a rash, usually along a nerve path, and severe pain. Sometimes the pain can last for months and be so debilitating that typical daily routines are disrupted.

How common is shingles?

Every year in the United States shingles affects between 500,000 and 1 million people. Individuals have a 20-30 percent chance of getting shingles during their lifetime. About half of the people who live to 85 years old will get shingles.

Is shingles dangerous?

Although people do not die from shingles, they can be severely hurt by it. Perhaps the most common and debilitating complication is persistent, long-lived pain. The pain can be so severe that it leads to sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness and depression, weight loss, anorexia, interference with basic daily activities such as dressing, bathing and eating, and an inability to participate in normal social activities. The pain can last for months or even years.

About 15 of every 100 people with shingles have blisters that are associated with nerves around the eyes. This can result in reduced vision and blindness.

Scarring and concurrent bacterial infections can also occur at the site of the rash.

How do you catch shingles?

People don't catch shingles from other people. Only people who have had chickenpox can get shingles. They get shingles when chickenpox virus, which can live silently in the nervous system for decades, reawakens. This reawakening of an old chickenpox infection is caused by a weakening of the immune system from advancing age, viruses (such as the AIDS virus), or immune suppressive drugs used to treat cancers.

Can my grandfather with shingles give my baby daughter chickenpox?

Yes, although people with shingles cannot give someone else shingles, they can pass chickenpox virus to others through direct contact with the rash. So if your baby has not yet had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, she could become infected with the virus and develop chickenpox.

Unlike chickenpox that can be passed to others through coughs or sneezes, people with shingles can only pass the virus to others through direct contact with the rash. If the rash has yet to develop or has crusted, the patient cannot transmit the virus. Similarly, people who still have pain without the rash are no longer able to transmit the virus.

How can you avoid shingles?

Once you have had chickenpox, you can get shingles. People who are 60 years old or older can decrease their chance of getting shingles by getting the shingles vaccine.

Who should get the shingles vaccine?

People who are 60 years of age and older should receive a single dose of the shingles vaccine.

How is the shingles vaccine made?

The shingles vaccine is a more concentrated version of the chickenpox vaccine currently given to children. Both are live, weakened forms of chickenpox virus. The shingles vaccine contains about fourteen times the amount of weakened chickenpox virus than the vaccine for children. This amount of virus is needed to obtain a protective response in the aging immune systems of older adults. Due to the differences in the quantities of virus in each vaccine, they cannot be used interchangeably.

Does the shingles vaccine work?

Yes, the vaccine protects more than half of the people from getting shingles and about 67 out of every 100 people from getting shingles pain.

Is the shingles vaccine safe?

Yes, common side effects included redness, pain, swelling and itching at the injection site. A small group of recipients also got a rash at the injection site.

Can people who got the shingles vaccine be around babies?

Yes, people who had the shingles vaccine can be around babies. However, if they develop a rash at the site of the injection, they should make sure the baby does not come into contact with the rash if the baby has not been immunized against chickenpox or has not had chickenpox disease.

Can people who got the chickenpox vaccine get shingles?

While people who got the chickenpox vaccine can get shingles, the frequency and severity of shingles is much less than that following natural infection.

Adults 60 years and older
Disease Risks Vaccine Risks
  • Debilitating and long-lasting pain 
  • Scarring or infection at the site of the rash
  • Reduced vision or blindness if blisters occur in nerves around the eye (15 of 100 people)
  • Pain, redness, swelling and itching at the injection site 
  • Rash at injection site 


Plotkin SA, Orenstein W, and Offit PA. Zoster vaccine in Vaccines, 6th Edition, 2012, 969-980.

Reviewed by: Paul A. Offit, MD
Date: April 2013

Materials in this section are updated as new information becomes available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.


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Shingles Vaccine Q&A

"Shingles: What you should know" Q&A sheet: