Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox.

If you had chickenpox earlier in life, the virus remains dormant (inactive) in your nervous system until much later in life. When the virus reactivates, it can cause a red skin rash. This is called herpes zoster, or shingles.

Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles. It usually happens later in life or when your immune system becomes weakened.

The painful blisters that appear with this rash often emerge on one side of your torso, neck, or face. Burning and stinging are common symptoms of a shingles rash, which can take several weeks to clear up.

It’s possible to decrease the chances of getting shingles — or lowering the severity of symptoms if you do — by getting a two-dose shingles vaccine.

Who can give the vaccine?

There is not much you need to do to prepare to get a shingles vaccine. You don’t even necessarily need an appointment.

A doctor can schedule a time to give you the vaccine, but licensed pharmacists are also allowed to administer it. Some pharmacies offer shingles vaccines on a walk-in basis. Check with your healthcare professional or pharmacy to be sure.

Whether you’ve made an appointment or walked into a pharmacy for vaccination, the next steps are simple.

When you arrive

When you arrive for vaccination, you will provide some basic information about yourself. You will also be asked for your health insurance information or for payment.

Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance plans will usually cover all or part of the shingles vaccine. Vaccine assistance programs offered by pharmaceutical companies could also offset any costs you might have.

Getting the vaccine

When it’s time for the actual shot, you will sit in a treatment area and bare your shoulder.

The healthcare professional or pharmacist will confirm your identity and clean the injection site with alcohol. They will then inject the shingles vaccine into the deltoid muscle of your shoulder.

The entire process lasts only a matter of seconds. After your shot, the healthcare professional or pharmacist may apply a bandage to the injection site. Otherwise, you can leave the doctor’s office or pharmacy with no special instructions or precautions.

It’s a good idea to schedule the second dose of the vaccine when you receive the first dose.

A look back at varicella-zoster vaccination

Even though chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus, the conditions have different vaccines. The chickenpox vaccine made its debut in 1995, but a shingles vaccine didn’t hit the market until about a decade later. The first shingles vaccine was Zostavax in 2006. However, this vaccine was taken off the market in 2020, following the release of another vaccine, called Shingrix, in 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that anyone who received Zostavax be revaccinated with Shingrix.

Anyone who had chickenpox can develop shingles, but people who had this condition aren’t the only ones at risk. The CDC recommends that all adults over age 50 — and adults over age 19 with certain health conditions — receive the shingles vaccine.

You should plan to receive the shingles vaccine if you:

  • previously had shingles
  • received a discontinued version of the shingles vaccine called Zostavax
  • were vaccinated against chickenpox
  • had chickenpox

Three groups of people absolutely should not receive the shingles vaccine. These are people who:

  • are pregnant
  • currently have shingles
  • previously had an allergic reaction to any components of the Shingrix vaccine

If you are pregnant or currently have shingles, it’s best to wait to get vaccinated until you are no longer pregnant or your shingles case clears up.

It may be difficult to know if you are allergic to any part of the vaccine, so speak with a doctor about any medication allergies you may have or previous reactions you experienced after vaccinations.

Most of the side effects of the shingles vaccine are limited and short-acting. Side effects usually appear in the first few days after your first or second dose of the vaccine and disappear within a few days.

Common side effects include things like:

  • arm soreness or pain where the vaccine was injected
  • swelling or redness at the injection site
  • tiredness
  • muscle pain
  • headache
  • shivering
  • fever
  • stomach pain
  • nausea

Most side effects of the shingles vaccine will resolve on their own within a few days of vaccination or can be treated with over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

In the rare case that you develop a more serious reaction after vaccination, you should call a doctor or go to a health clinic.

Medical emergency

It’s rare but possible to have a serious allergic reaction to a shingles vaccine. Call emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if you experience the following symptoms after a vaccination:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or throat
  • difficulty breathing
  • a racing heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • weakness

Most people should be vaccinated against shingles at ages 50 and over. People ages 18 and over who have health conditions or take medications that can weaken the immune system should consider getting the shingles vaccine before age 50.

For people receiving the vaccine at ages 50 and over, there is no particular time — and no maximum age — when you should be vaccinated.

Vaccination against shingles can be done on its own or alongside other vaccinations, like for the flu or pneumonia. Generally, the vaccine is given in two doses, with the second dose given 2 to 6 months after the first dose.

For people who are receiving the shingles vaccine because of an immune deficiency, the second dose can be given sooner: 1 to 2 months after the first dose.

In this case, if possible, shingles vaccination should be timed with your immune response. This could mean waiting until after a flare-up of your condition has subsided or getting the vaccine before you receive certain immune-suppressing medications.

The shingles vaccine series should be administered once in a person’s lifetime, according to the CDC. There is no age limit to when you can be vaccinated, and protection from the shingles vaccine series stays strong for the first 7 years and remains effective afterward.

Speak with a doctor about how often you should be vaccinated for shingles based on your specific immune system and health concerns.

The shingles vaccine that is currently available in the United States was introduced in 2017, so you may have questions about it. Below are answers to some of the most common questions.

How do you prepare for the shingles vaccine?

There’s not really anything you need to do to prepare for the shingles vaccine. A doctor’s office may want you to make an appointment, but many pharmacies offer the vaccine on a walk-in basis, too.

How many shots are given for the shingles vaccine?

Each series of the shingles vaccine consists of 2 shots, spaced 2 to 6 months apart.

Are there any restrictions after a shingles shot?

You should not receive the shingles vaccine if you are pregnant, if you have an active shingles infection, or if you previously had an allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine. If you’re eligible for the vaccine and receive the vaccination, there are no restrictions afterward and you can leave the doctor’s office or pharmacy as soon as the shot is complete.

Can you get a shingles vaccine at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine?

You can get the shingles vaccine along with certain other vaccinations, such as for the flu or pneumonia, but the CDC is still investigating the safety of getting your shingles vaccine alongside a COVID-19 vaccine.

There’s nothing you need to do to prepare for getting the shingles vaccine, other than making a plan to get it. The shot itself takes just a few seconds, but you will need a second dose in the months after your first vaccination. Be sure to get the full series for the best protection against developing shingles.