Herpes Zoster Vaccine
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Herpes Zoster Vaccine

(Shingles Vaccine)

En Español (Spanish Version)

What Is Herpes Zoster?

Herpes zoster , also known as shingles, is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox in children. After a child has recovered from chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in the body. The virus can be stimulated later in life, typically age 60 and older, and be revived as the shingles virus. Shingles can occur only in people who have had chickenpox.

The virus re-emerges as shingles for unknown reasons, but suspected causes include stress or a weakened immune system. It is typically only revived once with only one bout of symptoms; however, more than one episode can occur.

Shingles is a common illness in the United States, with more than a million cases reported each year.

The virus that causes shingles can be transmitted to people who have not yet had chickenpox and these individuals could develop chickenpox rather than shingles.

The most common symptoms of shingles include:

  • Painful, itchy skin that turns into a rash
  • A rash of red, painful blisters
  • Rash often occurs only on one side of the body
  • Blisters that break open, then scab over
  • Fever, headache, chills
  • Abdominal discomfort

Shingles and its symptoms typically improve over time. Medication may be prescribed to alleviate painful symptoms, and antiviral medications like acyclovir may be prescribed to help resolve symptoms more quickly.

Possible complications of shingles include blindness, deafness, paralysis of the face, loss of taste, or infection. In a small percentage of people who develop shingles, nerve pain may persist for years.

What Is Herpes Zoster Vaccine?

The herpes zoster vaccine is a live, weakened form of the chickenpox virus that is administered subcutaneously (below the skin). The vaccine is a much more concentrated, stronger form of the chickenpox vaccine that is given to children. It is stored frozen and should be administered immediately after having been thawed.

Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?

Adults age 60 and older should consider vaccination. One dose is recommended.

What Are the Risks Associated With the Herpes Zoster Vaccine?

  • Common, minor side effects include fever and local soreness.
  • Less common moderate side effects include red skin, swelling, or itching at the site of the injection (about 1 person in 3) and headache (about 1 person in 70).
  • Severe complications may occur such as anaphylaxis.

Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?

The following individuals should not get vaccinated; those who:

  • Have a compromised immune systems due to medications, including cancer treatment
  • Have HIV or AIDS
  • Have tuberculosis
  • Have an allergy to gelatin or neomycin
  • Are or may be pregnant

What Other Ways Can Shingles Be Prevented Besides Vaccination?

If you have never had chickenpox, you cannot get shingles. However, you may be stricken with a severe case of chickenpox.

If you have had chickenpox, you are at risk for shingles because the virus is already in your body. Vaccination can reduce this risk by about one-half.

What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?

Shingles can be passed to others and causes chickenpox in those without past chickenpox disease or vaccination. Chickenpox vaccination for these people could be considered.


American Academy of Dermatology

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website. Available at: http://www.chop.edu/consumer/jsp/division/generic.jsp. Accessed February 4, 2007.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nip/diseases/shingles/faqs-disease-shingles.htm. Accessed February 4, 2007.

Last reviewed February 2008 by David Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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