Zostavax is used for preventing shingles in people 50 years old and older. The medicine, which contains a live but weakened version of the varicella-zoster virus, works by stimulating the immune system to respond to the virus in the vaccine. At this time, there are no approved Zostavax uses for children or adults under the age of 50.
Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is caused by a virus (the varicella-zoster virus). It is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Most people are infected with this virus as chickenpox when they are children. The body never completely gets rid of the virus, and the virus remains inactive in certain nerve cells in the body. Later in life, often triggered by stress or illness, the virus can become active again, causing shingles.
Symptoms of shingles may include a rash (usually on only one side of the body) and burning or tingling pain. Usually, the rash forms blisters that may break and ooze. If this happens, you may be able to spread the "shingles virus" to people who have never had chickenpox. Shingles pain can be very severe. This pain can continue long after the rash is gone (which is known medically as postherpetic neuralgia).
(Click Shingles Symptoms for more information about the possible signs and symptoms of shingles.)
Zostavax is used to help prevent shingles. Like most vaccines, it is not 100 percent effective at preventing shingles. However, people who have had the Zostavax vaccine but still develop a case of shingles are less likely to develop certain complications of shingles, such as scarring or postherpetic neuralgia. Zostavax is not approved to prevent chickenpox or treat an active case of shingles or postherpetic neuralgia. Although studies of Zostavax did not include people who had already had shingles in the past, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that eligible individuals should get the Zostavax vaccine, regardless of whether they have had shingles in the past.