At first, I thought the red marks up and down my arm and hand were just a rash. When they became quite painful and didn’t seem to be going away, I made an appointment with my doctor. I had shingles. I had always thought of shingles as a disease only older adults developed—but I was in my 30s!
I was lucky that my outbreak stayed isolated to my arm and hand instead of spreading to my torso or face as it often does; but having shingles was still horrible. I had to keep the rash covered by clothing when in public, which meant walking around with a glove on one hand. It also meant I had to wait several weeks before I could meet my newborn nephew.
Take it from my experience, if there’s any way you can avoid shingles, you should. Thankfully, the Shingrix vaccine offers over 90% protection against the herpes zoster virus.
What is shingles?
Shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus. After you’ve contracted chickenpox and it has run its course, the varicella-zoster virus stays dormant in the body for years and can reactivate later in the form of shingles. Shingles is not contagious, but the virus that causes it is. People who are not immune to chickenpox (either from having chickenpox or receiving the chickenpox vaccine) can contract chickenpox from people who have shingles.
Symptoms of shingles include:
- A painful rash and blisters on one side of the face or body
- Upset stomach
The rash is usually present, but not always. Most of the time, doctors can diagnose shingles based on symptoms, but tests are available if there is any uncertainty.
Approximately 1 in 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. Shingles usually clears up within 3 to 5 weeks, but it can cause lasting complications. The most common complication is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a burning pain that lasts long after the rash and other symptoms have improved. This occurs in about 1 in 5 people who get shingles. Other rare but serious complications, such as blindness, can also occur. The best way to prevent these complications is to avoid getting shingles altogether. This is where the shingles vaccination comes in.
What is Shingrix?
Produced by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Shingrix is a recombinant vaccine introduced and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017. It became the second shingles vaccine on the market, after Zostavax was introduced in 2006. Unlike Zostavax, Shingrix is not a live vaccine. Meaning, it is not possible to contract shingles or chickenpox from the immunization.
While it is not the only shingles vaccine available, Shingrix is currently considered the most effective. It is 96% to 97% effective at the prevention of shingles in people aged 50 to 69, and 91% effective against shingles in people aged 70 and older.
The Shingrix schedule
The vaccine is given as two injections in the upper arm, two to six months apart. Both doses of Shingrix are needed to offer maximum protection against shingles.
Shingrix has been shown to be effective for at least three years, but is currently being studied for its efficacy at the 10-year mark and is expected to last much longer.
It is not recommended for protection against chickenpox.
Who should get Shingrix?
Shingrix is recommended for adults over 50 years old. Shingrix is still recommended even if someone has had shingles already; has already received the shingles vaccine Zostavax; or is not sure if they have had chickenpox.
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but people who are at higher risk include:
- People over 50 years of age
- People with compromised immune systems
- People taking medications that weaken the immune system
- People living with chronic illness
- People with HIV
Stress may also be a factor.
Who should not get Shingrix?
If you are not immune to chickenpox, you should receive a chickenpox vaccine instead of Shingrix. If you are unsure, your doctor can check for immunity via bloodwork.
People who currently have shingles will need to wait until they have recovered to get the vaccine. People who have a fever of 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or are acutely ill will also need to wait on the vaccine until they are fully recovered.
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult with their physicians before receiving the vaccine.
As with all medications, do not get the vaccine if you are allergic to any of its ingredients or have had a severe reaction to Shingrix in the past.
What are the side effects of Shingrix?
Side effects of the Shingrix vaccine are usually mild and last only a few days. Common side effects include:
- Pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site
- Injection site itching
- Stomach and digestive complaints (including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and/or stomach pain)
- Muscle pain
- Chills, fever
- Generally feeling unwell
Serious reactions are rare, but can include:
- Allergic reactions including rash, hives (urticaria)
- Swelling of the face, tongue, or throat, which may cause difficulty in swallowing or breathing (angioedema)
If you experience any serious side effects after the vaccine, or any side effects not listed here, contact your healthcare professional.
Shingrix vs. Zostavax: Which shingles vaccine is better?
The first shingles vaccine, Zostavax, differs from Shingrix in a number of ways. Zostavax (also called zoster vaccine live) is a live virus while Shingrix is not, making it advantageous for those who cannot receive live vaccines.
Shingrix is administered via two doses, whereas Zostavax is administered with one.
Because of its efficacy, Shingrix is recommended over Zostavax, particularly in elderly adults. While Shingrix is over 90% effective, Zostavax is about 51% effective.
If you have received the Zostavax vaccine, it’s recommended that you still get the Shingrix vaccine; however, if you have received the Shingrix vaccine, you do not need the Zostavax vaccine unless your doctor advises so.
The Zostavax vaccine is still available and is typically used if someone is unable to get the Shingrix vaccine due to allergy or adverse reactions, or if Shingrix is unavailable.
Continue reading: Shingrix vs. Zostavax
How much does Shingrix cost?
The cost for a complete course (two doses) of Shingrix is about $363.98. It is covered by most insurance companies and by Medicare Part D. Shingrix is not covered by Medicare Part A or Part B, but costs can be reduced by using a SingleCare coupon at our partner pharmacies, such as CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens.
Shingrix shortage: Where can I get Shingrix?
Shingrix is in high demand. This is good news in terms of keeping shingles at bay, the more people vaccinated the better; but the demand has been higher than the manufacturer anticipated, which means there is a shortage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects the shortage, which began in the summer of 2018, to last through 2019. GSK is working as fast as possible to make more vaccines available. The vaccines take six to nine months to make.
The high demand is partly due to the increased efficacy of Shingrix over Zostavax. Also playing a factor is the increased range of people who are suggested to receive the vaccine—people over 50 versus Zostavax’s recommendation of people over 60.
Until supply has caught up to demand, pharmacists and physicians are prioritizing people who have received the first dose of Shingrix and need their second dose, and those who are at a higher risk of contracting and/or suffering serious consequences of shingles. Because of the shortage, many people have missed the six-month window; the CDC does not currently recommend restarting the series if you miss the second dose timing, but you should get it as soon as possible within a 12-month window from the initial vaccine.
In the meantime, you can try calling different pharmacies to see if they have the vaccine available. As supply begins to go up, more doses should become readily available.
Some medical professionals recommend getting the Zostavax vaccine to offer some protection until the Shingrix vaccine is available to you.
Take it from me, shingles is an illness you definitely want to avoid. It is painful, inconvenient, and can have lasting effects on your health. Your best defense is the Shingrix vaccine. If you are 50 or older, or are at an increased risk of developing shingles, see your healthcare provider for information on how to stay protected.