Shingles Vaccination

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What is Shingles?

Shingles is a painful skin rash, often with blisters. It is called Herpes Zoster or just Zoster. It is an unpredictable disease that can occur at any time with no warning.

A shingles rash typically appears on one side of the face or body and last for 2 to 4 weeks. Its main symptom is pain and can be very severe. The pain or tingling sensation often comes on before the rash. Other symptoms can include fever, headache and chills. Complications of shingles include scarring, bacterial infections, weakness or muscle paralysis.  Very rarely shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing loss, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.

For about 1 person in 5 the severe nerve pain can continue long after the rash clears up. This is called post herpetic neuralgia. The nerve pain can last for months or years after the rash has healed. For some people this nerve pain can get in the way of normal day-to-day activities such as walking, sleeping and social activities. The pain of shingles can also lead to emotional distress.

Shingles is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus stays in your body, and can cause shingles many years later.

Shingles is far more common in people 50 years of age and older than in younger people. The life time risk of getting shingles is as high as 30%. For people who reach 85 years of age, one of every two will have had shingles.

What is the shingles shot?

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A vaccine for the prevention of shingles (zoster) has been available in Canada since 2009. In clinical studies, the vaccine reduced the risk of developing shingles by 50%. It also reduced pain (post herpetic neuralgia) in people who still got shingles after being vaccinated by 75%.

The shingles shot boosts your immune system to help protect you from shingles. It cannot be used to treat existing shingles or the pain associated with existing shingles. It is safe to receive the vaccine if you have had shingles in the past and fully recovered.

The shingles vaccine is recommended for adults of 50 years of age or older. A single dose of the vaccine is given by an injection under the skin.

Who should not get the shingles vaccine or wait?

A person should not get the shingles vaccine if they have:

An allergy to neomycin antibiotic or have a severe allergy to gelatine.

A weakened immune system because of current:

  • Cancer treatment with radiation or chemotherapy.
  • Prolonged use of high dose steroids or other chronic immune supressants.
  • Cancer that affects the bone marrow or lymphatics such as lymphoma or leukemia
  • AIDS or diseases or medications that affect the immune system.
  • Is pregnant or might be pregnant. Women should not become pregnant for at least 4 weeks after getting the shingles vaccine.

Someone with a minor acute illness, such as a cold, may be vaccinated. Someone with a moderate or severe acute illness should wait until they have recovered before getting the vaccine. This includes a temperature of 38.4 C or higher.

What are the side effects of the shingles vaccine?

A vaccine, like any medication, could possibly cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. However no serious problems have been identified with the shingles vaccine.

Mild Problems

  • Redness, soreness, swelling or itching at the site of injection. (about 1 person in 3)
  • Headache (about 1 person in 70)
  • Fever
  • Joint or muscle pains

Like all vaccines the shingles vaccine is being monitored for unusual or severe problems.

Frequently asked questions:

Q: What is the duration of protection of the shingles vaccine?

A: Data published so far indicates that the effect of the vaccine persists for at least 7 years. Ongoing studies will reassess if it is longer.

Q: Do you need a booster?

A: The need for a booster dose is not necessary.

Q: Can the vaccine be given to a person who has already had shingles?

A: The shingles vaccine is not a treatment for active shingles, yet the vaccine is safe and effective to those who have had shingles in the past.

Q: Can the vaccine be used in a person with an unknown chickenpox history? Do you need to do a blood test?

A: Yes the vaccine can be used in a person with an unknown chickenpox history. There is no need for a blood test before the shingles vaccine is given.

Q: Can the vaccine be given to those under age 50?

A: The vaccine has now been approved for people 50 years and older.