Shingles and the New Vaccine–Preventive Health Info from Your Ob/Gyn

The shingles vaccine has been well-accepted by older adults—most likely because so many people are familiar with the misery that the itching, burning rash causes. Now there is a new vaccine against shingles, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending it for most healthy adults over age 50.  As Ob/Gyns we also focus on women’s preventive health. We welcome your questions about this and other preventive health issues. Here is a list of common FAQs about protecting yourself against shingles.

What is Shingles (herpes zoster)?

Shingles is a painful rash that most often appears on one side of the face or body. It is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox (varicella zoster). Only people who have had chicken pox can develop shingles, but that is 99% of the population.  You have probably had chicken pox whether you remember it or not. The chicken pox virus remains inactive in the body. Sometime later, it can re-activate to cause shingles.

Besides being very painful, shingles can cause some serious complications. The most common complication is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with PHN will have severe pain in the area of the shingles outbreak that lasts for weeks, or even months or years, after the rash has disappeared. About 10 to 13% of people who have shingles will develop PHN.

Although shingles is much more likely as you get older, younger adults and (rarely) even children can have shingles. Infrequently, shingles may also lead to pneumonia, vision or hearing problems, and even encephalitis (a brain inflammation).

Is Shingles Contagious?

No. You cannot catch shingles from another person. But someone who has never had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccination can get chicken pox from someone who has shingles by direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters.

What treatment is available?

Call your physician if you have symptoms of shingles. We can prescribe anti-viral medications. These are most effective if taken early. We can also offer suggestions to relieve some of the pain and itching.

Who should receive the vaccination to PREVENT SHINGLES?

Most healthy adults over age 50 should be vaccinated against shingles. People who have already had shingles can still get the vaccine to prevent a future outbreak. You should NOT get the vaccine if:

  • You currently have shingles
  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You have previously had an allergic reaction to a component of the vaccine, or you had a reaction after a first dose of the vaccine
  • You are ill (wait until you are well)
  • If you have tested negative for immunity to chicken pox, you should NOT get this vaccine. Instead you should get the chicken pox vaccine.
  • You received Zostavax (the older vaccine) less than 8 weeks ago. Talk to your doctor about the best time for you to be vaccinated.

Which shingles vaccine is recommended?

Before 2018, physicians recommended that adults over 60 receive one does of a vaccine called Zostavax. The CDC now recommends a new, more effective vaccine called Shingrix. Shingrix can reduce your chances of developing shingles and PHN by 90% in healthy adults over age 50. Shingrix is given in 2 doses administered 2 to 6 months apart. You can get Shingrix even if you were already vaccinated with Zostavax, but you should wait about 8 weeks. Studies show that Shingrix is safe and provides strong protection against shingles and PHN. Severe allergic reactions are rare. Like most vaccinations, Shingrix can cause mild discomfort at the injection site or other side effects. Your healthcare professional will inform you about these before you receive the vaccine.