Should You Get the Shingles Vaccine If You're Over 50?

Should You Get Vaccinated If You're Over 50?

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Shingles is a potentially severe disease, caused by the reactivation of the chicken pox virus. But there is a vaccine that can lower your risk for getting shingles. Here's what people over 50 should know about the vaccine.

What Is Shingles?

When your body fights off the chicken pox virus varicella-zoster, it's not eliminated from your body; rather, it goes into hiding and stays dormant in the nerve roots of your brain and spine.

As you get older, the virus can reactivate, causing an infection called herpes zoster, or shingles. It's characterized by a blistering rash and pain on one side of the body, usually the chest, neck or face.

How Serious Is Shingles?

About 1 million Americans get shingles every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Complications can include vision and hearing problems, neuromuscular disease and long-term nerve pain.

In studies, people who have had shingles use words like "excruciating" and "horrible" to describe the pain of the initial skin rash. The most serious and common after-effect of shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia, or chronic nerve pain. Even if you get anti-viral drug treatment within 72 hours of the start of shingles — the narrow window of time required for the medication to be most effective — you can still be left with severe long-term pain.

According to the CDC, as many as half of older adults who get shingles will suffer complications, and the incidence of complications increases with age.

What Does the Vaccine Do?

The shingles vaccine can prevent you from getting shingles, or at least help with your symptoms. One study found that the vaccine prevents about half of all cases of shingles, and helps to reduce the severity of symptoms in shingles cases that do occur.

In addition, researchers found that it lowered the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia by two thirds in people who were vaccinated.

What Age Should You Get Vaccinated?

The shingles vaccine was approved in 2006 by the United States Food and Drug Administration for people aged 60 and older and is recommended for people in that age group. 

More recently, it has also been approved for people as young as 50. That's because international research on the vaccine's effectiveness in people between the ages of 50 to 59 revealed it was effective in preventing about 70 percent of shingles cases in this age group. To date, the US Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has stopped short of an outright recommendation of the shingles vaccine in adults this age, citing limited vaccine availability and lower disease rates of shingles (and subsequent complications) in this age group, when compared with older adults.

Who Should Avoid the Vaccine?

Some people should not get the shingles vaccine. Advice from the CDC excludes:

  • People with a compromised immune system, such as those with HIV, leukemia or lymphoma
  • Those taking immunosuppressant drugs like prednisone, or radiation therapy or chemotherapy for cancer
  • Women who are pregnant or likely to become so
  • Adults who are allergic to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin. Such patients should discuss such allergies with their health-care provider.

According to the CDC, older adults on medication for other chronic conditions can still get the shingles vaccine, and it is safe to get at the same time as the annual flu vaccine.

How Long Does Immunity Last?

Research is ongoing to determine how long the shingles vaccine can prevent shingles and its complications. At the moment, it is delivered as a single-dose vaccine, but it is possible that a booster shot to improve immunity will be recommended in the future.

What If You've Already Had the Chicken Pox Vaccine?

If you've been vaccinated against chicken pox, the ACIP recommends that you not get the shingles vaccine. Luckily, the chicken pox vaccine is 70 to 90 percent effective at preventing chicken pox, and you can't get shingles if you've never had chicken pox.

The Bottom Line

While it may not necessarily stop you from getting shingles altogether, the shingles vaccine can reduce the severity and duration of this difficult disease. In addition, the chance of one of the most serious complications — chronic nerve pain — is also diminished. Discuss any concerns about the vaccine or the disease itself with your doctor. He or she will help you determine if you should get the vaccine when you are 50 or 60, or if you fall into a group that should not get vaccinated.


CDC Seeks to Protect Older Adults With Shingles Vaccine Message. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Information Sheet. Accessed March 20, 2013.

Herpes Zoster (shingles) Vaccine. Public Health Agency of Canada Public Information Sheet. Accessed March 20, 2013.

Marla Shapiro, Brent Kvern, Peter Watson, Lyn Guenther, Janet McElhaney, and Allison McGeer. "Update on Herpes Zoster Vaccination: A Family Practitioner's Guide." Canadian Family Physician October 2011 vol. 57 no. 10 1127-1131.

Prevention of Herpes Zoster: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Information sheet. Accessed March 21, 2013.

Shingles. US National Institutes of Health Medline Public Information Sheet. Accessed March 4, 2013. (br) 

Shingles Vaccination: What You Need to Know. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Information Sheet. Accessed March 20, 2013.

Statement on the Recommended Use of Herpes Zoster Vaccine. Public Health Agency of Canada Information Sheet. Accessed March 20, 2013.

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