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Many people remember chickenpox, with its characteristic itchy red rash, from their childhood. Chickenpox is usually a mild illness, although some people do experience complications and severe symptoms. However, the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox never really goes away. It stays inside nerve cells in a dormant state.

The virus can reactivate later in life and cause herpes zoster, better known as shingles. Almost 1 out of 3 adults experiences shingles at some point, but a shingles vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of developing the illness.

Candidates For Shingles Vaccination

A shingles vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from shingles and potential complications. The CDC states that adults 50 years and older should get a shingles vaccine. Adults 19 or older should also be vaccinated if they have weakened immune systems.

People can have shingles more than once, so get vaccinated even if you've already had an outbreak.

Doctor fills injection syringe with vaccine Meyer & Meyer / Getty Images
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Vaccine Effectiveness

Although no vaccine is 100% effective, the shingles vaccine is approximately 95% effective for people between the ages of 50 to 69 years. It's 97% effective for preventing shingles in people age 70 or older.

Research estimates that shingles vaccines are between 68% and 91% effective for people with compromised immune systems.

Doctor giving a senior woman a vaccination Choreograph / Getty Images
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Health Concerns

People who are pregnant, or plan to become pregnant, should consult a doctor before getting a shingles vaccine. You should also discuss vaccination with your doctor if you have a weakened immune system, are a stem cell transplant recipient, or have had an allergic reaction related to a vaccine.

An allergic reaction to a previous vaccine, or to any ingredient in shingles vaccines, doesn't always mean you can't get vaccinated. Your doctor may be able to manage the reaction or find an alternative.

doctor talking to pregnant patient Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images
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Vaccine Procedure

The shingles vaccine is given in two doses, which should be separated by 2 to 6 months. Healthcare professionals usually inject the vaccine into the upper arm.

You can be vaccinated if you have a mild illness, such as a cold. If you feel severely ill or have a temperature over 101.3 degrees, postpone vaccination until you've recovered. Sometimes the vaccine causes soreness in the upper arm, so try to schedule vaccinations on days when you won't need to use your arm frequently.

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Side Effects

The most common side effect of the shingles vaccine is soreness at the injection site. Other potential side effects include redness or swelling around the injection site, fatigue, headache, nausea, fever, and abdominal pain.

In rare cases, the vaccine may have serious side effects such as rapid heartbeat, dizziness, or weakness. Hives, swelling in the face or throat, and difficulty breathing may be signs of an allergic reaction. Notify a healthcare professional immediately if you experience serious side effects or allergy symptoms.

shoulder skin redness after vaccination Oleksandra Troian / Getty Images
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Chickenpox Exposure

It's a good idea to get a shingles vaccine even if you don't remember having chickenpox. Approximately 99% of Americans born before 1980, and the vast majority of those born later, have been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus.

Exposure doesn't always cause illness. Some people never experience any symptoms of chickenpox, but they can still carry the dormant virus and develop shingles later in life.

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Chickenpox Vaccine vs. Shingles Vaccine

The shingles and chickenpox vaccines protect people from the same virus, but the vaccines aren't interchangeable. People that are vaccinated for chickenpox can still develop shingles.

In some cases, before administering the shingles vaccine, a doctor may recommend a blood test to confirm immunity to chickenpox. If the test is negative, the chickenpox vaccine may be more appropriate.

Nurse doing an injection Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images
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Long-Term Considerations

The shingles vaccine may be effective for up to 5 years, although people with certain health conditions may need to boost their immunity more frequently.

Don't get a shingles vaccine while you have shingles. The vaccine doesn't treat shingles symptoms. It also cannot help with long-term complications of a previous bout of shingles, so it's best to get vaccinated early and prevent the illness in the first place.

Syringe and Vaccine on a Calendar erdikocak / Getty Images
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Shingles Signs and Symptoms

A shingles rash forms small, fluid-filled blistered on one side of the body or face. The rash can appear anywhere, although it frequently starts around the waist. Increased skin sensitivity and a tingling, itching, or burning sensation may occur before the rash appears.

Other early symptoms include fever, headache, an upset stomach, sensitivity to light, and fatigue and lethargy. Shingles forms along nerves and causes mild to severe sharp, stabbing, or radiating pain. The blisters typically scab over within 7 to 10 days and heal completely in 2 to 4 weeks.

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Long-Term Complications

Medical professionals may use antiviral medications to treat shingles, but this doesn't always prevent complications. In rare cases, rashes on the face cause blindness or deafness on the affected side. Severe cases of shingles can damage the affected nerves and cause a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. The pain related to PHN can last for months or years after the rash heals.

Woman with shingles Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.