Q. I am 69 and my sister is 71. We don’t remember ever having chicken pox. I have asked two doctors if you can get shingles if you never had chicken pox. I got two different answers. The same thing happened with two pharmacists. Please break the tie. We’re trying to decide if we should take the shot or not.
A. If you really never had chicken pox as children, you can’t get shingles as adults. The virus that causes chicken pox (Varicella zoster) lingers in the body and can crop up later in life as painful blisters called shingles.
Although it’s rare, adults can catch chicken pox, either from an infected child or directly from skin contact with someone who has shingles blisters. Even for people who are susceptible to shingles, the vaccine (Zostavax) is not foolproof. Studies show that it reduces the risk by about 55 percent (Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 12, 2011).
A reader points out what this means in practical terms:
“Getting the shot does not guarantee that you will not get shingles. I had shingles years ago and got the shot when it first came out. I had shingles again two years ago.”
Because shingles is such a painful condition and there is a risk of long-lasting pain afterwards due to post-herpetic neuralgia, older people who did have chicken pox as youngsters might discuss this immunization with their physicians. There are some conditions in which the vaccination is not recommended. Here is the CDC’s statement:
“Zostavax should not be given to pregnant women, persons with a primary or acquired immunodeficiency, or to persons with a history of anaphylactic reaction to gelatin, neomycin, or any other component of the vaccine.”