Do I Really Need the Shingles Vaccine?

If you’ve ever had chicken pox—a blistery, itchy disease that’s most common in children—then you could also develop shingles  at some point.

“The varicella virus causes chicken pox, then goes latent in the nerve cells throughout your body,” says Elisabeth Cohen, MD, professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and shingles researcher at NYU Langone Health. “At any point in life, the virus could reactivate as herpes zoster, or shingles.”

Shingles symptoms usually emerge as severe pain and blisters on one side of the body.

“Studies have shown that people go to the emergency room because it's a pain like they've never had,” Dr. Cohen says. “The shingles diagnosis is usually made when the rash follows, which can include red spots and blisters. The rash can be severe or relatively mild, but it’s usually in the distribution of a single nerve on one side of your body.”

Although the shingles rash can be treated with antiviral medications, the virus’s long-term effects can be severe. Shingles increases stroke and heart disease risk and may spread to nerves in ways that can cause lifelong pain (postherpetic neuralgia), blindness in one eye, deafness in one ear, and other highly debilitating or deadly problems.

“Shingles can really devastate people’s well-being for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Cohen.

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The only way to avoid these serious risks is to prevent shingles altogether by getting vaccinated against the disease.

“I strongly urge people ages 50 and above to get the Shingrix vaccine,” she says. The vaccine, which came on the market in 2017, requires two shots, two to six months apart, and is more than 90 percent effective against shingles.

Although the Shingrix vaccine works very well in preventing shingles and its devastating effects, Dr. Cohen also wants people to be aware that the vaccine can leave them with a sore arm or flu-like symptoms for several days following each shot. Nonetheless, it is very important to get the second shot, as the vaccine requires both shots to work.

“You do need to time your shots so you're ready to have a very sore arm or flu-like symptoms for a couple of days, but there’s no risk of infection. The short-term discomfort is well worth the long-term gains in prevention.”

The easiest way to obtain the Shingrix vaccine, if your doctor does not have it, she says, is to go straight to your local hospital or chain pharmacy. Pharmacists are well trained to administer these shots.

Even if you’ve already had shingles or had the original Zostavax vaccine, you should still get the Shingirx vaccine, she stresses.

“Ten percent of people have a second episode of shingles in another location on their body,” she explains. “So, even if you’ve experienced shingles before, you should get the shot about six to twelve months after your initial episode.”

To increase vaccinations and overall awareness of shingles, Dr. Cohen and her colleagues wrote an e-book urging doctors to strongly recommend the shingles vaccine to their patients. Cohen also leads innovative research projects that seek effective treatments for shingles of the eye.

“We’re working hard to find more ways to manage shingles,” Dr. Cohen says, “but prevention through the vaccine is still the best approach.”

For more information on the Zoster Eye Disease Study, visit the ZEDS website.