Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with the new shingles vaccine.
Love, because Shingrix — which offers much better protection against the painful rash than its predecessor Zostavax — is so popular that there are shortages of the vaccine.
Hate, because people are also complaining the shot is painful and comes with unpleasant side effects.
“My arm feels like Mike Tyson punched it 9 times,” one man tweeted last month after getting the new vaccine.
“Today, I got the shingles vaccination. Now my left arm hurts so much,” a woman tweeted this week.
Others complained of fever, muscle aches, feeling “lousy & virusy” and suffering “like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck.”
It’s not their imagination.
What is Shingrix, the new shingles vaccine?
Shingrix, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late 2017, is more likely to cause short-term side effects than either Zostavax or other vaccines for adults, said Dr. Kathleen Dooling, a medical officer in the division of viral diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“One of the important things is to go into this vaccination knowing that you’ll probably have some side effects after and be prepared for those,” Dooling told TODAY.
“The advice we’ve been giving people is that if you plan to get the vaccine, in the day or two afterwards, don’t plan any big, strenuous activities. For example, don’t plan a big gardening project... don’t plan your big golf game for that period.”
What are the shingles vaccine side effects?
The vast majority of people, 80 percent, experience pain at the injection site in the day or two after the vaccination, Dooling said. Many also experience redness or swelling. In a small percentage of people, that swelling or redness can extend more than 4.5 inches, she added.
Besides a sore arm, the vaccine is also associated with more general, flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, tiredness, headache, shivering, nausea and fever.
For one in six people, some combination of those side effects is severe enough to interfere with work or other regular activities. Taking over-the-counter pain medication for relief would be “a reasonable thing to do,” Dooling said.
Symptoms usually go away on their own in two to three days, but a minority of people had longer reactions. Dooling advised contacting your health care provider if symptoms persist for more than seven days.
About 3.2 million doses of Shingrix were distributed in the first eight months of use, according to a CDC report published this month. In that time, the public reported more than 4,381 “adverse events” associated with the vaccine — with 3 percent classified as serious — through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which can be used by patients, parents, doctors and others. A report of a reaction through VAERS is not proof that a vaccine caused it and the 3 percent figure “is not different from what we would expect for any new vaccination,” Dooling said.
Doctors believe the side effects are due to a component of the vaccine called the adjuvant.
“The role of the adjuvant is to alert the immune system that it needs to spring into action and respond to the vaccine. So the symptoms you feel after the vaccine are the result of that heightened response,” Dooling noted.
Who should get the shingles vaccine?
The CDC recommends healthy people who are 50 or older get two doses of Shingrix, which is more than 90 percent effective in preventing shingles, also known as herpes zoster. The excruciating rash is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and anyone who has ever had chickenpox may develop shingles. There are a million cases of it each year in the U.S. and the risk rises with age.
You can't develop shingles if you've never had chickenpox, but most adults have had the disease. Studies show 99 percent of Americans who are over 40 have had chickenpox, even if they don't remember it, the CDC noted. The dormant virus may get reactivated when the immune system is weaker — during infections or times of stress, for example.
People should get Shingrix even if they've received the Zostavax vaccine in the past or have already had shingles, the agency advises.
You should receive the second dose of Shingrix two to six months after you get the first shot and that may mean another round of side-effects. How you reacted to the first dose doesn’t necessarily predict how you’ll react to the second, Dooling said.
Early CDC data shows more than 70 percent of patients are getting that second dose within the recommended six month window.
But another type of complication has arisen: shortages of the Shingrix vaccine. The demand for the vaccine has exceeded expectations, so shipping delays will continue throughout this year, the CDC warned. GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of the vaccine, says it has increased deliveries and sped up shipments for 2019 to meet the “unprecedented” demand.
The CDC hopes the supply catches up with demand soon, but it’s likely that will be many months from now, Dooling said.
“It definitely sends us a signal that people are concerned about shingles and they want to protect themselves through vaccination, but we certainly hope that everybody who wants it can get it in a timely way,” she noted.