Shingles Vaccine

Key vaccine facts

This vaccine gives protection against shingles, a painful skin rash caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox (varicella-zoster) virus in people who have previously had chickenpox.

It is licensed for those aged 50 and above, and offered free of charge to all people aged 70 in the UK. There is also a catch-up programme for people aged 78 or 79 who have not yet had the vaccine.

Research shows that the vaccine is expected to reduce cases of shingles infection by 38% (for adults over 70 years of age) . For those who do get shingles, it should reduce the severity of the illness. It prevents two thirds of cases of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) in older people. PHN is a severe burning, throbbing or stabbing nerve pain which can last for several months or even years after the shingles rash has gone. The vaccine is expected to give protection against shingles for at least 5 years, and long-term studies are continuing to investigate this. See 'Does the vaccine work?' below.

The vaccine can safely be given at the same time as the seasonal flu vaccine and the Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPV) (see 'More Information' below).

The Shingles vaccine contains a live strain of the varicella-zoster virus that has been weakened (attenuated), so that it stimulates the immune system but does not cause disease in healthy people. However, it should not be given to people who are clinically immunosuppressed (either due to drug treatment or underlying illness). This is because the vaccine strain could replicate too much and cause a serious infection. For more information see the MHRA's Drug Safety Update (April 2016) .

Ingredients

The virus strain used in the shingles vaccine is grown in the laboratory using human cell-lines. See more information about the use of human cell-lines in vaccine manufacture.

The vaccine contains gelatine derived from pigs. See more information on gelatine in vaccines.

The vaccine may contain traces of neomycin, an antibiotic used in the production process to stop bacteria growing and contaminating the vaccine. See more information on antibiotics in vaccines.

It also contains a tiny amount of the following ingredients:

  • urea, a harmless organic compound used as a stabiliser
  • sucrose (sugar), used as a stabiliser
  • sodium chloride (salt)
  • other harmless sodium and potassium salts used as acidity regulators during the manufacture of the vaccine

The shingles vaccine used in the UK does not contain the preservative thiomersal (mercury).

Side effects

The Shingles vaccine is a live attenuated (weakened) vaccine. It should not be given to people who are clinically immunosuppressed (either due to drug treatment or underlying illness) because the vaccine strain could replicate too much and cause a serious infection. For more information see the MHRA's Drug Safety Update (April 2016) .

Common but not serious (up to one in 10 people)

  • redness, pain, swelling and itching at the injection site.

Less common (between one in 10 and one in 100 people):

  • headaches
  • pain in arm or leg
  • warmth, bruising or a hard lump at the injection site.

Very rare (fewer than one in 10,000 people):

  • a chickenpox-like illness following vaccination. If you develop a rash with blisters, keep it covered and consult a doctor.

As with any vaccine, medicine or food, there is a very small chance of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). Anaphylaxis is different from less severe allergic reactions because it causes life-threatening breathing and/or circulation problems. It is always serious but can be treated with adrenaline. In the UK between 1997 and 2003 there were a total of 130 reports of anaphylaxis following ALL immunisations, but all of these people survived. Around 117 million doses of vaccines were given in the UK during this period, making the overall rate around 1 in 900,000. Depending on the cause of the reaction, and following expert guidance, the person may be able to have vaccinations in the future.

Reactions listed under ‘possible side effects’ or ‘adverse events’ on vaccine product information sheets may not all be directly linked to the vaccine. See Vaccine side effects and adverse reactions for more information on why this is the case.

See more information on the monitoring of vaccine safety.

Does the vaccine work?

In the early 2000s researchers carried out a very large study of the shingles vaccine (Zostavax) involving over 38,000 adults aged 60 or older. The results showed that:

  • In adults aged between 60 and 70, the vaccine reduced the number of cases of shingles by 51.3%
  • In adults aged over 70, the vaccine reduced the number of cases of shingles by 38%
  • The vaccine reduced the incidence of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) by over 66% in all age groups
  • For those who did get shingles, the vaccine reduced the severity of the disease.

Read the abstract of this study , published in 2005 by Oxman et al.

The Summary of Product Characteristics for Zostavax, the shingles vaccine used in the UK, states that the vaccine should not be given at the same time as the Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine. This is because a clinical trial by the manufacturer had suggested this might make Zostavax less effective. However, the Department of Health advice is that the two vaccines can be given at the same time. This is based on expert advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation , and on research that showed no evidence that people receiving both vaccines together had any increased risk of developing shingles. Read the abstract of the 2011 study by Tseng et al .

Adults aged 80 or over are not offered the shingles vaccine. This is because the effectiveness of the vaccine declines with age in older age groups.

Is the vaccine safe?

The vaccine can be given to people with a previous history of shingles infection. It should not be given to anyone who currently has shingles. As stated above, the vaccine should not be given to people who are clinically immunosuppressed (either due to drug treatment or underlying illness) because the vaccine strain could replicate too much and cause a serious infection. For more information see the MHRA's Drug Safety Update (April 2016) .

In clinical trials of the vaccine, there have been no reports of someone who was vaccinated passing the virus on to anyone else. However, because the shingles vaccine is a live vaccine, it is thought that this may be possible in rare cases.

There is thought to be a very small risk that someone who has been vaccinated could pass on the virus to someone who is not immune to chickenpox. This is only thought to be a risk if the person who has been vaccinated develops a shingles type rash at the injection site or elsewhere on the body.

Page last updated: 
Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Diseases

Shingles

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox (varicella-zoster)... Read more