Is the Shingles Vaccine Right for You?

By Krisha McCoy, MS

Medically reviewed By Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

Chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus, and vaccines against both can protect you against shingles.


Shingles, a painful rash that usually appears on one side of the body, and the childhood disease chickenpox are both caused by the varicella virus. Because you can't getshingles if you haven't had chickenpox, the chickenpox vaccine reduces both your risk for chickenpox and shingles. If you have had chickenpox, theshingles vaccineprovides protection against this infection, which typically occurs later in life.

Both the shingles vaccine and the chickenpox vaccine work by introducing your immune system to weakened forms of the varicella virus, triggering it to create protective antibodies.

Who Should Get the Chickenpox Vaccine

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that virtually all children who have never had chickenpox get the chickenpox vaccine.

The chickenpox is usually just a mild — but contagious — illness that brings with it an itchy rash, fever, and fatigue.

But in some people, especially young infants and adults, chickenpox can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia and scarring. And once you have had chickenpox, the varicella virus remains in your body, putting you at risk of developing shingles later in life.

The CDC recommends the chickenpox vaccine for the following groups:

  • Children under age 13. Ideally, children who have never had chickenpox should receive the first dose of the chickenpox vaccine between 12 and 15 months of age, and the second dose between ages 4 and 6.
  • Adults and children age 13 and older. Anyone age 13 years and older who has never had chickenpox should receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine, at least 28 days apart.

Anyone born before 1980 in the United States is considered immune to chickenpox unless they are pregnant, immunocompromised (such as someone undergoing cancer treatment), or a healthcare worker. These people are considered immune to chickenpox only if they have had the vaccine, previously had chickenpox or shingles, or have blood test results confirming immunity.

People who have had the chickenpox vaccine probably won't ever develop chickenpox; if they do, their illness will usually be very mild. They are also less likely to develop shingles later on.

Who Shouldn't Get the Chickenpox Vaccine

Certain people should not receive the chickenpox vaccine, including:

  • People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous chickenpox vaccine, gelatin, or neomycin (an antibiotic)
  • People who are moderately to severely ill; they should wait until they are better to get the chickenpox vaccine
  • Pregnant women, or women who might become pregnant in the next month

You should check with your doctor before having the chickenpox vaccine if you have a disease that affects your immune system, like HIV/AIDS; are being treated with medications, like steroids, that affect your immune system; have cancer; or have had a recent blood transfusion.

Possible Complications From the Chickenpox Vaccine

Most people don't have any problems from the chickenpox vaccine, but complications may include:

  • Soreness or swelling around the injection site — 20 percent to 33 percent of people have this problem
  • Fever, which appears in fewer than 10 percent of those vaccinated
  • A mild rash, which appears in 4 percent of those vaccinated

Other complications, which are very rare, are seizures and pneumonia.

Who Should Get the Shingles Vaccine

A shingles vaccine became available in 2006, and is recommended for people who are 60 years old and older. This single-dose vaccine is even recommended for people who have already had shingles to reduce their risk of getting it again. The shingles vaccine can cut your risk of developing shingles in half, and can reduce the severity of shingles if you do contract it.

Who Shouldn't Get the Shingles Vaccine

Certain people, however, should not get the shingles vaccine, including:

  • People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin or neomycin
  • People with untreated tuberculosis
  • Pregnant women, or women who might become pregnant in the next three months
  • People who are moderately or severely ill

In addition, anyone with a weakened immune system should not get shingles vaccine. That includes those:

  • With HIV/AIDS
  • With cancer
  • With a history of bone marrow or lymphatic cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Taking medications such as steroids that affect the immune system

Complications From the Shingles Vaccine

The shingles vaccine is very safe, but has been associated with the following mild complications:

  • Redness, soreness, swelling, or itching around the injection site — in 33 percent of those vaccinated
  • Headache — in about 1 percent of those vaccinated

Shingles can be a painful and even debilitating illness, but getting the chickenpox vaccine or the shingles vaccine can reduce your risk.