Key Takeaways

  • Shingles is a serious health concern for older adults, affecting 1 out of 3 Americans in their lifetime—and roughly 1 million people yearly.  

  • The only way to prevent shingles is through vaccination with Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine).

  • Is there a free shingles vaccine for seniors? Medicare covers the entire cost of Shingrix for older adults who are enrolled.

Chances are you’ve heard of shingles—or maybe you know someone who was unfortunate enough to experience it. This distressing condition affects 1 out of 3 Americans in their lifetime—and an estimated 1 million people each year.

For older adults, shingles is a serious health concern. If you haven’t yet received the shingles vaccine, you may have questions such as: Is there a free shingles vaccine for seniors? How long does the shingles vaccine last? Can the shingles vaccine make you sick? Learning all you can about shingles is the first step to protecting yourself and staying healthy.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection that brings on a painful skin rash. It's caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus responsible for chickenpox. Even if you had chickenpox as a child, the varicella zoster virus may still lie dormant in your nerve cells. In most cases, it stays inactive. However, in about one-third of adults, the virus reactivates. Most people who develop shingles will only have it one time—but it is possible to get it more than once.

Shingles symptoms and treatment

Symptoms of shingles include sensitive and/or tingling skin followed by a red, blistery rash. The blisters tend to scab over in seven to 10 days and are fully healed by two to four weeks. Headache, fever/chills, and an upset stomach are other common symptoms of shingles. The pain from this infection can be severe and debilitating and can interfere with daily life.

There’s no known cure for shingles. Treatment usually involves managing the pain with topical creams, steroids, and cold compresses. In some cases, anti-viral medications are used to ease symptoms and prevent nerve damage. While shingles typically runs its course within a few weeks, roughly 10-18% of people experience long-term nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Other complications of shingles include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Hearing problems
  • Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  • Bacterial infection
  • Death

The only way to prevent shingles is through vaccination with Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine). Shingrix is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles as well as long-term nerve pain.

Note: Shingrix replaced the shingles vaccine Zostavax as of November 2020, and Zostavax is no longer used in the U.S. If you had the Zostavax vaccine previously, you should still get the Shingrix shot. Talk to your health care provider about the best timing to get Shingrix.

At what age should you get the shingles vaccine?

Older adults are at higher risk for developing shingles, since our bodies have more trouble fighting off infections as we age. In fact, adults over age 60 represent approximately half of all shingles cases in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that healthy adults age 50 years and older get two doses of Shingrix separated by two to six months. Vaccination is also recommended for some adults age 19 and older who have compromised immune systems. People who are immunocompromised can receive their second dose of Shingrix one to two months after the first dose.

Shingrix is available in pharmacies and physicians’ offices and, like many vaccines, is delivered as a shot in your upper arm. If you’re wondering, “Should I get the shingles vaccine at age 75?”, the answer is yes. There is no maximum age for receiving the vaccine.

Should you get the shingles vaccine after getting shingles? Yes, the two-dose Shingrix regimen is recommended by the CDC if you’ve had shingles or you received the Zostavax vaccine. You should also get vaccinated even if you’re not sure whether you had chickenpox as a child.

How long does the shingles vaccine last? Studies show that protection remains higher than 85% within the first four years of vaccination. While protection from the shingles vaccine gradually wears off over the first five to eight years, there is currently no approved shingles booster available.

How effective is the shingles vaccine?

Studies show Shingrix was 97% effective in preventing shingles in healthy adults age 50 to 69. In adults age 70 and older, Shingrix was 91% effective.

How long does the shingles vaccine last? In people age 70 and older with healthy immune systems, immunity from Shingrix stayed high throughout the seven years after getting vaccinated. There is currently no approved shingles booster available.

Does the shingles vaccine have side effects?

Many people wonder, “Can the shingles vaccine make you sick?” Since the shingles vaccine triggers a robust immune system response, you may experience some temporary side effects that go away within two to three days. Most side effects are mild. Keep in mind that shingles can lead to complications such as a lifetime of nerve pain—so these short-term effects are a small price to pay for protection.

Shingles vaccine side effects may include:

  • Sore arm
  • Fatigue, headache, body aches, stomach pain, or nausea
  • Redness and swelling at the injection site

Are there reasons why you shouldn't get the shingles vaccine?

Although Shingrix is considered safe and effective, there is a small subset of people who should avoid it. You should not get the shingles vaccine if you:

  • Have an active shingles infection
  • Have tested negative for immunity to varicella zoster virus (in that case, you should get the chickenpox vaccine)
  • Have experienced a severe allergic reaction to Shingrix or any component of this vaccine

Additionally, if you’re sick with a moderate to severe illness (including having a temperature of 101.3°F or higher), it’s best to wait until you recover before you get the shingles shot.

How much is the shingles vaccine? Is there a free shingles vaccine for seniors?

Medicare covers a wide range of preventive services, including Shingrix. Due to the Inflation Reduction Act, there is now no cost-sharing for all adult vaccines covered under Part D that are recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices—including Shingrix. This means if you have Medicare, you should pay nothing out of pocket when you receive your vaccination. If you don’t have Medicare, call your health insurance plan in advance to see if they will cover the Shingrix vaccine.

Don’t wait—schedule your shingles vaccine today. If you’ve put off your shingles vaccination, now is the time to schedule it with your health care provider or local pharmacy.

Kathleen Cameron, Senior Director of the NCOA Center for Healthy Aging, encourages all eligible older adults to roll up their sleeves for the Shingrix shot.

"The shingles vaccine is safe, well-tolerated, and extremely effective in preventing shingles," she explained. "Getting vaccinated against this very unpleasant condition a smart step you can take to stay healthy."