The Vaccine Doctors Are Begging Every Single Person Over 50 to Get ASAP

Woman over 50 getting important vaccine

If your 50th birthday is on the horizon, there's one vaccine doctors are begging their patients to get: the shingles vaccine. “I would definitely recommend it,” says Dr. Kenneth Koncilja, MD, a geriatrician and internal medicine physician with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Geriatric Medicine.

Yes, your doctor still wants you to get a seasonal flu vaccine each year—and a COVID booster too. But those are vaccines that you’ll need to get every year. The shingles vaccine is actually a two-shot series, but you only have to complete the series once. Then you should be good to go. Read on for my information on the shingles vaccine, and why it's so important to get it.

What Is Shingles, Anyway?

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash, usually on one side of the body. The rash often looks like a stripe of fluid-filled blisters wrapped around part of your body. It can also appear on the face or neck or around one eye.

“It is not a benign illness,” says Dr. Tina Tan, MD, an infectious disease expert and professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Before the rash appears, you might experience some pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will eventually develop. And the pain may linger after the rash clears up. For some people, the pain can linger indefinitely.

“Most of the time, it goes away over time, but there are some people who always have some element of it,” says. Dr. Tan.

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This long-term nerve pain is called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN, and it can be quite debilitating, experts say. About 10-18% of people with shingles develop postherpetic neuralgia. The risk and severity go up with age too.

“Even uncomplicated shingles is very painful with a rash that can take weeks to resolve,” cautions Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston.

While postherpetic neuralgia is the most common complication of shingles, there are other possible complications, such as bacterial infections to the shingles rash or eye problems, such as blurry vision, sensitivity to light or even vision loss. Occasionally people can go on to develop pneumonia or a type of inflammation of the brain known as encephalitis.

Why You Should Get the Shingles Vaccine, According to Experts

Shingles is a lot more common than you might realize. About one in three people in the United States will get shingles at some point in their lifetime, according to the CDC.

If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk for shingles. This is because the virus, varicella-zoster virus, lies dormant in your body after you have chickenpox. Then later, it reactivates, causing shingles.

If you were born before 1980, you almost certainly had chickenpox—and many people who were born after that date did too. Even if you don’t remember having chickenpox, there’s a good chance that you had it, according to Dr. Knocilja.

The chickenpox vaccine didn’t become available in the U.S. until 1995. And just in the early 1990s alone, the CDC reports that more than 4 million people had chickenpox. “The shingles vaccine sharply reduces the risk of getting a shingles outbreak and improves the odds that the pain will resolve quickly if an outbreak does occur,” says Dr. Yancey.

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What to Expect from the Shingles Vaccine

A live vaccine called Zostavax was pulled from the U.S. market in 2020, so the only shingles vaccine currently available is the two-dose recombinant vaccine called Shingrix. Shingrix is reported to be more effective at preventing shingles than Zostavax was.

Currently, Shingrix is only approved for adults 50 and older, although people who are younger (19 and older) and have a weakened immune system may be able to get the vaccine too.

“The latest shingles vaccine is highly immunogenic, which means it is a very effective vaccine,” says Dr. Yancey. “But this also means that it can cause a sore arm and feeling under the weather for a few days. These side effects are mild compared to getting a case of shingles.”

Those mild symptoms are just a sign that the vaccine is working, adds Dr. Koncilja. “I tell people it’s a safe vaccine that we’ve been using for eight years,” he says. “We know it very well, and we know it works.”

After you receive your first shingles shot, you’ll need to wait two to six months to get the second one. But you won’t need to get a booster. “It should be good for the rest of your life,” says Dr. Tan.

Also, if you accidentally forget to get the second shot within that time frame, you can just go ahead and get the second shot anyway, she adds. You don’t have to start the series over.

If you’ve already had shingles, the vaccine should also prevent future outbreaks. But you do want to wait until the rash goes away before you get vaccinated.

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The Bottom Line

If you’re eligible for the shingles vaccine and haven’t gotten it yet, experts urge you to contact your primary care provider or make an appointment with your local pharmacy to get the process started.

“Everyone over age 50 should get the shingles vaccine, regardless of whether or not you've had shingles in the past, whether you’ve had the live vaccine, or whether you remember having chickenpox in the past,” says Dr. Tan. “Everyone needs to get the shingles vaccine.”

Adds Dr. Yancey, “If you are on the fence about getting the shingles vaccine, talk to a friend who has had a case of shingles. It causes a level of pain that most people are not expecting and that modern medicine doesn’t have very good treatments for. It is much better to prevent a case of shingles than to have to deal with the consequences of one.”

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