Shingles (also known as herpes zoster or zona) is an infection caused by the reactivation of a dormant varicella-zoster virus.
The immune system is usually able to control the virus. However, when a person is aging or ill, the immune system is weakened and this can allow the virus to become reactivated, causing a painful rash to appear. The rash usually disappears within two to three weeks, but the pain can last for months or even years, especially in frail individuals.
Getting vaccinated is the best protection against shingles and also reduces the risk of experiencing prolonged pain (called postherpetic neuralgia). The vaccine is recommended for anyone over the age of 60, regardless of their health condition. Individuals between 50 and 60 years old can also get the vaccine if they are at a higher risk of complications from shingles.
In Canada, there are two vaccines against shingles: a live vaccine (weakened form of the virus) and a nonliving vaccine (made of a killed virus component). As with the chickenpox vaccine, protection is not complete. In other words, some vaccinated individuals may still develop shingles, but it will be milder and the risk of complications is much lower.
The rate of protection with the live vaccine is a bit lower than with the nonliving vaccine, but it requires only one dose and causes very few adverse effects.
People who can't get a live vaccine injection can opt for the nonliving vaccine. It has a higher rate of protection that the live vaccine, but it requires two doses (with two to six months between doses) and often causes adverse effects such as pain and redness at the site of injection, as well as muscle aches, fatigue and fever.
Which should you choose?
Your doctor can help you determine which is more appropriate for your health condition and risk of complications. The shingles vaccine isn't free in Quebec, but many drug insurance plans reimburse the cost of the vaccination.