Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox virus). If you've had chickenpox (usually in your childhood), the varicella-zoster virus stays dormant in your nerve cells and may reactivate later in life, causing shingles.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,¹ nearly a third of the people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. Although everyone can get shingles, the risk increases as you get older.
However, there's a shingles vaccine known as Shingrix, which may protect you against herpes zoster. But can you get shingles after being vaccinated? Let's find out more below.
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Shingle is a viral infection that has an almost predictable pattern and timeline. The course can take about 2–4 weeks.
Before the rash appears, you'll experience pain, itching, and tingling in the area where the rash will develop — usually within several days.
The rash develops in a single stripe on one side of the body, usually on the face, neck, or torso, and along the dermatome, an area of skin supplied by a single spinal nerve. Shingles on the face or near the eye may cause vision loss and is a medical emergency. The rash may be red, dark brown, dark pink, or purplish, depending on your skin tone.
In rare cases, the shingles rash may be more widespread on the body, resembling a chickenpox rash. This happens mostly to people with a weakened immune system.
Other shingles symptoms include:
Shingle symptoms can be mild for some people and severe for others.
Everyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. Researchers are yet to understand why the herpes zoster virus reactivates later to cause shingles. However, some factors can put you at higher risk of getting shingles, including:
Older age: While everyone, including children, can get shingles, the risk increases as you get older. About half of shingles cases in the US are of people 60 or older.
Weakened immune system: A weakened immune system can't fight viruses and infections effectively, increasing your risk of getting shingles (and other diseases). Age, cancer, cancer treatments, HIV, and HIV treatments can weaken your immune system.
While many people develop shingles only once in their lifetime, it is still possible to get the illness more than once.
Initially, there were two types of vaccines licensed and recommended for the prevention of shingles in the US:
The zoster vaccine live (ZVL, Zostavax)
Recombinant zoster vaccines (RZV Shingrix)
Zostavax was approved and licensed by the FDA² in 2006. The vaccine minimizes the risk of getting shingles by 51% and postherpetic neuralgia by 61%. Moreover, it is given in one dose as a shot.
Furthermore, Zostavax is recommended for people 60 and older. It contains a weakened varicella-zoster virus; therefore, it is not ideal for people with a weakened immune system.
However, the shingles vaccine Zostavax is no longer available in the US as of November 2020.³
The CDC recommends that people 50 years and older get two doses of the Shingrix vaccine to prevent shingles outbreaks and associated complications. The vaccine is administered as a shot in the upper arm.
The recombinant zoster vaccine (Shingrix) is more than 90% effective in preventing shingles and PNH. In addition, your immunity will remain solid for at least the first seven years after vaccination.
However, if you're an adult with a weakened immune system, the shingles vaccine Shingrix is 68–91% effective.
Like any other vaccine, the shingles vaccines, Zostavax and Shingrix, can cause side effects. However, the effects are generally mild and do not last long.
After getting a shingles vaccine, you may experience a sore arm with mild or moderate pain. You may also experience redness and soreness at the site of the injection. Other possible side effects include:
Some of the side effects of the shingles vaccine may prevent you from doing regular activities, often for 2–3 days. Moreover, the side effects are common in young people.
In rare cases, you may get a severe nervous system disorder known as Guillain-Barre syndrome⁴ (GBS) after the Shingrix vaccine.
Over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen might help relieve the side effects of the shingles vaccine. However, speak to your doctor if the symptoms persist for an extended period.
The Shingrix is not ideal for everyone. For instance, you should not get the shingles vaccine if you've had an allergic reaction to a previous dose, compound, or ingredient of the vaccine.
If you're pregnant or trying to be pregnant, speak to your doctor before getting the shingles vaccine.
Moreover, you should not get the shingles vaccine if you currently have shingles.
According to the CDC, the Shingrix vaccine is about 90% effective. This means that the vaccine does not protect you 100% against shingles.
Therefore, although rare, it is still possible to get shingles even after the shingles vaccine. In addition, the vaccine doesn't fully guarantee that you will not get shingles. Instead, it only minimizes your risk of getting the illness.
However, if you get shingles after getting the shingles vaccine, your symptoms will be milder, and the illness will run a short course.
Moreover, your risk of getting shingles complications like postherpetic neuralgia will be significantly lower.
There's no cure for shingles. Shingle is a viral infection that must run its course. Fortunately, there are various treatments and remedies to alleviate symptoms and speed up recovery. You should seek treatment for shingles within 72 hours of developing symptoms.
Antiviral medications like acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir are the most common for treating shingles. Take them as your healthcare provider prescribes to minimize pain and speed recovery.
Also, over-the-counter or prescription pain medication might help ease pain caused by shingles.
The National Institute on Aging⁵ recommends the following home remedies for the treatment of shingles:
Wearing loose-fitting natural fiber clothes
Cool showers or baths to clean and soothe the skin
Applying calamine lotion to relieve itching
Eating well-balanced meals
Getting plenty of rest
If shingles symptoms don't improve after the above treatments and remedies, seek medical help. Also, if you develop shingles complications, speak to your doctor immediately.
If you've not had shingles, the best way to protect yourself is by getting the shingles vaccine, Shingrix.
Approximately one-third of people in America are affected by shingles, and most cases involve adults 50 years and older. One of the best ways to stay safe and prevent shingles is by getting the shingles vaccine. There were two shingles vaccines approved by the FDA, Zostavax and Shingrix. However, Zostavax was discontinued in the US in November 2020. So currently, the only recommended shingles vaccine in the United States is Shingrix.
While the shingles vaccines are up to 90% effective, you can still get shingles even after vaccination. But the symptoms will be milder, and the risk of shingles complications will be lower.
Shingles (Herpes zoster) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Zostavax (Herpes zoster vaccine) questions and answers | U.S. Food and Drug Administration
What everyone should know about Zostavax | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
FDA requires a warning about Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) be included in the prescribing information for shingrix | U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Shingles | National Institute on Aging
Shingles vaccination | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Signs & symptoms | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Shingles vaccine FAQs | NHS
Treating shingles | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Shingles | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Shingles: Diagnosis and treatment | American Academy of Dermatology Association