Some people in their 70s are offered a vaccination on the NHS to protect against shingles. The vaccination doesn’t guarantee you won't get shingles but it has been proven to reduce the risk of developing it or make an outbreak shorter or milder than it would have been.
Protection is estimated to last around 5 years.
The shingles vaccine
The vaccine, called Zostavax, is given as a single injection under the skin (subcutaneously). It can be given at any time in the year. Unlike with the flu jab, annual injections are not needed. It can be given at the same time as the flu jab in some cases to avoid additional appointments.
The vaccine has been tested for safety in clinical trials.
In rare cases there may be an allergic reaction to the vaccine and one of its components, neomycin. This includes skin rash or contact dermatitis.
The vaccine is licensed in Europe for adults over 50.
Shingles and ageing
Elderly people are at particular risk of shingles. The Department of Health says the vaccination programme will prevent 38% of the 30,000 cases seen every year in people over 70.
A large US study involving more than 760,000 people aged 65 and over found vaccination halved the chances of developing shingles.
The study published in PLoS Medicine found than without the jab, 1 in 100 people a year would develop shingles. After vaccination, that fell to 1 in 200.
Even if the vaccine doesn't stop a person developing shingles, a 55% reduction in symptoms is possible.
The NHS now provides the vaccine to anyone aged 70 and 78. It also offers a catch-up programme for those who missed the start of the programme up to the age of 80.
Is the vaccine useful if you have already had shingles?
According to the NHS, the vaccine works well in people who have had shingles before and will provide protection against shingles in the future. However, having an episode of shingles will naturally boost your immune system to provide protection, so it is thought that a vaccine would provide only limited benefit if given after a recent episode of shingles. Current guidelines recommend waiting at least a year after a single episode of shingles, but in people who have two or more episodes within a year, they should have immunological investigation before being offered the vaccination.
One study based in California looked at more than 6,000 cases of shingles in people 60 years or older and followed them for an average of 2 years. After recovering from shingles, about 1in 6 of the people in the study group were given the shingles vaccine. The numbers of people who got shingles again during the study period was low, with only 29 confirmed cases during the 2 years in both groups. The researchers concluded that the risk of a second episode was low after an episode of shingles, whether or not a vaccine was given.