The Zostavax shingles vaccine treats a byproduct of the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus infects an individual nerve and the skin surface that is supplied by the nerve resulting in an outbreak of painful sores.

There are an estimated 1 million diagnosed cases of shingles every year in the United States, and one in three people will have them in their lifetime. Anyone who has contracted chickenpox is vulnerable to developing shingles. Once exposed, the virus can lay dormant for years, making shingles more common in older people.

Who needs the Zostavax shingles vaccine?

Over half of shingles cases occur in people over the age of 60, which is the age group that Zostavax treats. The FDA approved the Zostavax vaccine for people 60 years of age and older in 2006.

In June 2005, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked a group of 38,000 people over 60, with a median age of 69. Researchers found that Zostavax cut the odds of getting shingles by 50 percent. 

What are the side effects of the Zostavax shingles vaccine?

who should get the shingles vaccine

Zostavax is a live vaccine used to treat shingles in people age 60 years or older. It is generally safe and administered with no side effects.

However, potential side effects include:

  • Injection site reactions (redness, itching, swelling, warmth, bruising, and pain)
  • A headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Skin rash

Additionally, there are lawsuits filed against the manufacturer, Merck, Inc., indicating the Zostavax shingles vaccine may cause rare, more severe injuries.

In the first Zostavax lawsuit, Tsalichis, et al. v. Merck, Inc., a South Carolina man had the shingles vaccine and two months developed retinal necrosis, which caused him to lose his eyesight. According to court documents, the vaccine may have also contributed to his hearing loss.