Shingles: Should You Be Vaccinated?

You may have successfully weathered chickenpox as a child, but its adult counterpart—shingles—isn’t kid stuff.

This painful skin rash, whose nerve pain can linger for months or even years, is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you had chickenpox in your youth, you can develop shingles as an adult because VZV remains in your nerve cells. But the good news is that you can protect yourself against the sometimes intense pain of shingles with a simple vaccination.

Serious business

Shingles can show up with its itchy blistering decades after the chickenpox infection clears. Because it’s only a reactivation of an earlier chickenpox virus, however, you can’t contract it from being in contact with someone else who has shingles or chickenpox.

It can lead to lifelong pain, and if it gets to the face, it can even lead to blindness. In people who are immuno-compromised, shingles can even be fatal.

Vaccination guidelines

Fortunately, the shingles vaccination is effective in reducing both the incidence of shingles and its complications. Initially the shingles vaccine was recommended for people ages 60 and older. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now approved the vaccine for those ages 50 and older, and many physicians have begun to recommend it for patients as young as 50.

The vaccine is considered safe–with few side effects except for an infrequent rash at the site of the injection–for those who are otherwise healthy, with no immune system problems. It is not recommended for anyone who is pregnant or who has certain allergies.

Lifetime benefits

The vaccine is approximately 70 percent effective in protecting against the disease, but there are benefits even if you contract shingles after being vaccinated. You can still contract the disease after vaccination, but the symptoms are far easier to deal with in comparison to those unvaccinated.

One shingles vaccination should protect you for life, but some physicians caution that few tests have been done to see if the vaccination lasts more than three or four decades. It’s possible that if you get the vaccination at age 50, its efficacy may wear off by age 80 or 90, although the risk is very low. In the future, a 10-year booster vaccine may be available.

If you do contract shingles with or without the vaccine, it’s important to see your doctor quickly for anti-viral medications and other treatments because they are most effective within 72 hours.

Shingles vaccination

Private insurance coverage for the shingles vaccine, which often costs $170 to $350, varies by plan. Medicare Part D plans cover the shingles vaccine, but depending on the plan, patients may be responsible for a portion of the total cost as a co-pay. Medicare Part B does not cover the shingles vaccine.

To offset the cost for people whose insurance doesn’t include the vaccine, pharmaceutical maker Merck offers a reimbursement program. For more information, go to the company’s website: Or, check with a pharmacist at a national pharmacy such as Publix or Walgreens. Because the vaccination is expensive to stock, many hospitals refer their patients (with a written prescription) to such pharmacies.