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The Shingles Vaccine: What You Need To Know

Dr Hamish Black

Getting vaccinated against shingles is an effective way to prevent serious illness caused by the shingles virus. Here are the facts around the vaccine.

 Smiling man with bandage on arm showing vaccination certificate while sitting at examination room
 Smiling man with bandage on arm showing vaccination certificate while sitting at examination room

Shingles is a condition that affects one in three people at some point in their life. The risk of shingles increases with age especially for those aged over 60. If you’re immunocompromised, you’re also more at risk. Thankfully, there is a vaccine that can reduce your chances of developing shingles.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a condition caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you’ve had chickenpox in the past, you can still get shingles, because the chickenpox virus stays in the nerve cells. Shingles occur when it becomes active again.

Shingles causes a painful and blistering rash, says nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black. The rash usually appears on one side of the body, but can be on any area, including the face, chest, back, stomach or pelvis. “It can also cause a low-grade fever and lethargy,” he adds.

While some people have mild symptoms and recover quickly, one in 10 people can experience pain and tingling of shingles for months or years. Others may need to be hospitalised, and in worst cases, shingles can lead to death.

“If you have shingles near or in the eye, you will need ophthalmological care,” Hamish says.

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The shingles vaccine

The good news is that there is a shingles vaccine. While it may not stop you from getting shingles, it reduces your chance of getting it. And if you do get shingles, the vaccine will help the symptoms be milder and last for a shorter amount of time.

It isn’t the same as the chickenpox vaccine – read more about that here.

Who needs the vaccine, and when should they get it?

People aged 60 and over are recommended to get the vaccine, and it is free for people aged in their 70s. But it’s a good idea for anyone aged over 50 to have a chat with their GP about whether they should have the vaccine, especially if you’re living with someone who has a weakened immune system.

Types of shingles vaccines

There are two types of vaccine – Zostavax and Shingrix – and both are given through an injection, usually in the upper arm.

Both are evidence-based, and the main side effects may include pain, redness, swelling or itching at the injection site, as well as headaches and tiredness.

Shingrix requires two doses, and this is the vaccine you are recommended to get if you are immunocompromised. The doses are given two to six months apart (or two months apart if you’re immunocompromised).

Zostavax requires one dose, and is free for Australians in their 70s. It is fine for most people but shouldn’t be given to anyone who has experienced anaphylaxis after a previous dose of any live varicella-zoster vaccine . It’s also not recommended for pregnant women.

How do the vaccines work?

“These vaccines work by imitating the presence of the virus thereby engaging the body’s natural defences,” Hamish says. “It causes our immune system to begin producing antibodies to reduce the chances the virus will reactivate.” 

Shingrix, unlike Zostavax, does not contain live virus, but rather a small part of the virus, which is why it’s recommended for immunocompromised people.  

Do you need a booster?

There is currently no booster recommendation for either the Zostavax or Shingrix vaccines.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.