shingles rash

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.”

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  1. Ralph

    I had the shingles shot just over a year ago. I had bad swelling and redness almost immediately and have had pain in that area and down my arm ever since. Has anyone else had this problem. Can shingles or shingles vaccine cause internal infection or other problems that would cause this pain? It has been over a year and I have had MRI and X-ray test with no problems found. Maybe it is coincidental that it happened at the time I got the shot, but I would never take the shot again.

  2. Tonya

    I’m 42 yrs old woman. I had shingles when I was in the 6th grade. That’s over 20 yrs ago.
    I don’t rash but I got a lot of itching on the same side that the shingles was on and some pain. I have never had the shot. Do you think I need the shot or what?
    Please help me out.

  3. Kathie D.

    After having shingles of the eye earlier in the year, I had the shingles vaccine in December. It’s now March and I’m dealing with another outbreak of shingles. I actually felt weakened after the shot. For me, the shot proved ineffective, and may have stressed my immune system enough that the shingles returned.

  4. Lucille

    My brother in law, aged 72, had the shingles vaccination. About 5 days later his blood pressure started accelerating for no apparent reason. They visited the ER and their cardiologist and have begun testing. More HTN drugs added to his daily meds, awaiting results from renal and bloodtests. Otherwise his pressure has been fine for years without any incidences. Any connection between the vaccine?
    Lucille W.

    • Lizette W.
      Northern California

      I had shingles last year and the shingles vaccine after that. In the last two days I have had similar burning pain on my LEFT thigh although no blisters have appeared yet. Before, the shingles came out on my upper RIGHT thigh and across my stomach to my spine. I want to know if I can go ahead and get a second shingles vaccine. Does anyone out there know? I have been unable to communicate with my doctor. Sent 10-17-2014. Please, someone, help me to know if OK to get the vaccine a 2nd time.

  5. C.F.

    My husband got shingles when he was a mere 43 years old…why no shots for us? Why must you be old to get a shot? He suffered greatly, why not just give it out like a flu shot..nobody should suffer through a bout of the shingles.

  6. DTG

    I had a severe case of shingles 18 years ago, just after a particularly stressful time in my life; my mother died and at the same time my job was abolished, and my doctor told me that shingles are triggered by stress, either internal or external. I would suggest that a good many of the sufferers above have had some “trigger” if they think about it.

  7. CAR

    There is a blood test to determine if you have had chicken pox or not. I have a mentally challenged child & we were never sure she had the pox & wanted to make sure. She’s not old enough to get the shingles vaccine so we wanted to make sure about the chicken pox first. I’ve had a couple friends who had severe cases of shingles & they told me get the shot: we’ve spent more on the meds to get better than if we’d had the shot. Both my husband & I did: seems a worthwhile preventive.

  8. Bonnie

    Lots of discussion on this painful subject. Wish the responsas could give us the best solution.

  9. A.S.

    MSAW, I kept dairy goats for about 10 years. Not sure my experience sheds much light on your possible goat pox/chicken pox immunity but here it is. I remember one doe’s outbreak of an odd pox-like udder skin problem. Vet didn’t know what it was. I think I finally used blue-kote to treat it. But I did have chicken pox as a child. I had no health issues when my own children had chicken pox. Then I had a pretty bad case of shingles earlier this year, possibly caused by the stress of a loved one’s terminal illness. I’m in my 60s.

  10. LB

    I had the lab test to see if I had ever had chicken pox. I learned I did not. A pharmacist advised me to go and get the chicken pox vaccination instead. I was told it could give me a mild case of chicken pox if I do that. Clearly I don’t want to get shingles or chicken pox. And I wonder if I could have gotten a false negative from the lab test. I also wonder if I need to get the chicken pox vaccination. I am meeting with my nurse practitioner this week to address these questions. Any info others have regarding them I would much appreciate. None of us want to get shingles.

  11. LB

    I had the lab test to check whether I had ever gotten chicken pox. It came back negative. However, a pharmacist told me to go and get the chicken pox vaccine even though it could cause me to get a mild case of chicken pox. Obviously, I would prefer not to get either chicken pox or shingles. I was told not to get the shingles shot since my test came back negative. Any thoughts on getting the chicken pox vaccine in my case is appreciated. I am glad I got checked before going ahead with the shingles shot.

  12. Lucy G

    Given the advice not to get the shingles vaccine if you react to gelatin, I’m wondering if those of us with the Alpha-Gal allergy would be advised to stay away from it? Gelatin has been known to trigger an Alpha-gal reaction in some people so I have been careful to avoid it.
    Also, how does this affect people who have not had chicken pox but received the chicken pox vaccine?
    Thanks for any advice.

  13. fbl

    Almost 20 years ago I had a couple spots on my rib cage that were itching. It was itching while at the chiropractors. He took a look and told me to get to my Dr. immediately as it looked like shingles.
    My family Dr. confirmed that the two spots were indeed shingles and proceeded to treat me with acupuncture and a homeopathic remedy. He sent me home with more of the remedy and I haven’t had an outbreak since. Yes it cured the problem!

    • Carmelita

      What was the homeopathic remedy?

  14. Lorraine N.

    I had chicken pox as a child and a couple of mild cases of shingles as an adult. At 63 I had the vaccination and my lymph nodes in my armpits were sore for 2&1/2 months as well as redness where the shot was given. I don’t think it was worth it.

  15. Constance C. C.

    My father had shingles at age 70, and really suffered for weeks, whereas I had one two weeks ago just getting out of bed and immediately put soap on my legs, and it calmed down rather quickly. I continue to do it frequently just in case. I’ve heard of such from YOU, so I assume you’ve also told many others. CCC

  16. FN

    My doctor will not give me the singles shot. He told me there is an underlying cause that triggers the shingles, that must be checked. One example is cancer.

  17. VFC

    There is a lab test that can determine whether or not you have ever had chicken pox, for those who don’t know. The shingles vaccine should be discussed with your doctor, especially as we age, because people endure untold agony with shingles, sometimes for a long time.Medicare would not pay for something that isn’t proven to save money for them! Even if it only lessens your outbreak the vaccine would still be worth it.

  18. MSAW

    I have never had chicken pox. When my children got them, I did not. My doctor thought that because I had dairy goats and they had at one point had a version of pox on their udder, that this may have been immune building for me. I was also a teacher and one year 80% of the class got chicken pox, it took months to go through the class of 30. I never got them. SO, I am thinking that I do not need a shingles vaccine. Any other goat folks out there to confirm or not?

  19. RLD

    I did not have the chicken pox as a child, but had the vaccine before becoming pregnant. Does this mean I have the antibodies and can contract shingles? My children’s pediatrician says I could and he recommends the shingles vaccine when I reach that age. Of course, I wouldn’t rely only on a pediatrician’s advice, but I found his comments curious.

  20. psd

    My daughter had mild cases of chicken pox twice, when she was young. Psd

  21. JM

    Good advice and comments. I have read everything I can about the vaccine but have not seen anything about Herpes I or II and the shingles shot. Since shingles and herpes are related would the vaccine still be helpful for those suffering from Herpes? I currently have H. Simplex, but did have a very mild case of H. Zoster about 30 years ago. Thanks.

  22. Bonnie

    I had shingles at the age of 12. Started on my side. My folks thought it was a spider bite until it had spread around the front and back. Then took me to dr. I remember that horrible purple medicine they had to paint me with. Anyhow, my dr. says I probably have some immunity from that. Seems odd, but that is what he said.
    Off the subject, has anyone had trouble with a drug called Lopid or the generic Genfibrozil? Treatment for high triglycerides.

  23. A.S.

    I had a very uncomfortable case of shingles earlier this year. What is the advice regarding getting the vaccine for people who have already had a bout with shingles?

  24. SC

    I had the shingles vaccine a few years ago. Then, last year, I had an attack of shingles which the doctor termed “acute”. It was the most paintul thing I have ever had and and I was the most miserable I have ever been. I was incapacitated and lived on pain medication for a number of weeks. So for me the shingles vaccine was worthless.

  25. Mary D.

    I had chicken pox before I was 6 months old. Just because you don’t remember having them, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t had them. I found this article very helpful.

  26. WCS

    Just be aware, you can get chicken pox from the shingles vaccine. Several years ago I received the shingles vaccine and both my wife and I came down with a very mild case of bumps that looked like chicken pox. My doctor said that this was indeed possible. But a small price to pay for some protection from the shingles. By the way, I had already had a mild case of the shingles about 15 years ago so this reaction to the shingles shot was a surprise.

  27. Karen

    Another factor to consider is that if you can get the anti-viral drugs WITHIN FOUR days of the outbreak, you might be able to stop a shingles attack. If you miss the four day window, you’re in for the whole thing. It can be brutal. Depending on which nerves are affected, incontinence can be an additional consequence.
    I don’t “remember” having any specific childhood diseases, myself. But I know I’ve been sick. Just would hate to trust my memory on exactly which diseases, and which older variants of diseases that may have mutated in the time since I was a kid, I have exposure to.

  28. Dr. Judi

    I did send the comment a few minutes ago, but cannot see where to click that it was me!!!!

  29. Dr. Judi

    I beg to differ. I believe that a person can have a subclinical case of chicken pox, so that he thinks he did not have it but actually did, and thus may be able to get Shingles.
    Even if you get shingles after having had Zostavax, it will be much milder than if you had not had the shot. Moreover, and this is the main reason for getting the shot, the likelihood of interminable post-herpetic neuralgia is much, much less if you have had the shot.
    The chances of getting Post-herpetic neuralgia after shingles increases with age.
    I think everyone 65 and over should get Zostavax.

  30. Carolyn K.

    I didn’t think I had chicken pox as a child, even though I’d been exposed to it, but I had a very painful case of shingles. But considering the 50-50 chance it won’t work, I don’t know if the vaccine is worth the exorbitant cost.

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