What you need to know about new shingles vaccine

Image 1 of 10

George Green felt the first hint of shingles just before Christmas two years ago.

"I started to feel pain underneath my arm here, in this muscle," the 69-year old says.

Then, overnight the pain began to spread, and blisters popped up on Green's skin on his side.

"And it was like someone was sticking needles in my muscles," he says.

By the time Green went to see his physician, Emory Healthcare internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist, he says the pain was excruciating.

"She said it was the worst case of shingles she'd ever seen," Green says.

Shingles, caused by the chickenpox or herpes zoster virus, can cause a painful, blistering rash on one side of the face and body.

Some people, like George Green, also develop nerve pain that can linger for months, even years.

Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 99 percent of Americans 40 and over have been exposed to the virus.

The virus can lay dormant in the body, and then "reactivate" years later, triggering shingles.

Our risk of developing shingles goes up as we age and our immune system weakens.

But, a new vaccine called Shingrix may offer the best protection yet against shingles.

Shingrix is recommended for people 50 and older, a decade earlier than the previous vaccine known as Zostavax.

And Dr. Bergquist believes the earlier protection makes sense.

"Because a lot of people are leading very stressful lives and that stress can compromise the immune system," Dr. Bergquist explains. "I think it's reasonable for people, even in their 50s to think about it."

Experts say Shingrix appears to be much more effective than Zostavax.

In clinical research, Shingrix proved 97 percent effective in preventing Shingles in people ages 50 to 69.

It was 91 percent effective in those 70 and older.

Zostavax, recommended for people 60 and older, was 64 percent effective in people in their 60s, 41 percent effective for people in their 70s, and only; 18 percent effective in those age 80 and older.

"But what's beautiful about this new vaccine is that it's just as effective in people in their 60's as people in their 70's and 80's," Bergquist says. "So, the people who need it the most are the people who this vaccine will serve the best."

The downside? Shingrix is a 2-shot vaccine, with the injections given two to six months apart.

Zostavax is just one shot.

Both vaccines may cause pain and redness at the injection site.

"But with the new vaccine, they're seeing a higher rate, at least in clinical studies, of people getting muscle aches, fatigue, getting some GI-related symptoms," Bergquist warns. "So, there is a higher rate of side effects, but none of them that are in any way life-threatening concerns."

The CDC says you can receive Shingrix even if you're already been vaccinated with Zostavax.

You can also receive the shot if you've had a previous bout of herpes zoster.

The vaccine is not recommended for anyone with an active case of shingles, or anyone who has a history of a severe allergic reaction to any of the components of the vaccine.

It has not been tested in pregnant and breastfeeding women.

George Green says he won't soon forget his bout with shingles.

If you can avoid the virus, he says, do it.

"I was surprised how intense it was," Green says. "I've had a broken wrist before and that was painful. This is about as painful as having a broken wrist because it was all at one place."