Key Takeaways

  • Shingles is a serious health concern for older adults, affecting 1 out of 3 Americans in their lifetime.  

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

  • Is there a free shingles vaccine for seniors? Depending on your plan, Medicare may cover a portion or all of the cost of Shingrix.

For older adults, shingles is a serious health concern, affecting 1 out of 3 Americans in their lifetime. 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 7 to 10 days and are fully healed by 2 to 4 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. Why is Zostavax no longer available? It was shown to significantly decline in protection against shingles after five years.

At what age should you get the shingles vaccine?

Seniors 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 CDC recommends that healthy adults age 50 years and older get two doses of Shingrix separated by 2 to 6 months.

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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.

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 2 to 3 days. 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), or
  • 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. Medicare Part D plans cover the shingles vaccine, but there could be an out-of-pocket cost associated with it depending on your plan. You may be responsible for a copayment, or you may be asked to pay in full and then seek reimbursement from Medicare. Medicare Part B does not currently cover a free shingles vaccine for seniors, but federal legislation has been proposed to provide coverage for the shingles vaccine at no cost to Medicare beneficiaries.

Don’t wait—schedule your shingles vaccine today.

In previous years, the shingles vaccine has been in short supply because of high demand. However, fewer office visits during the COVID-19 pandemic has made Shingrix more readily available.

What does this mean for you? If you’ve put off your shingles vaccination, now is the time to schedule it with your healthcare provider or local pharmacy. Check with your Medicare drug or health plan beforehand to find out if some or all of the shingles vaccine costs are covered.