Medical Matters > Vaccines: Shingles

ME Essential Winter 2021

Question

As I’m 70 I’ve been offered the shingles vaccine. I have had ME since 2016, consider myself to be severe, and already suffer from nerve pain. So I do not want to make things worse. But I’m also aware of people with ME who have had a significant exacerbation of symptoms following a vaccination. So should I have this vaccine?

Answer

As you say, there is a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence to indicate that vaccinations can sometimes trigger ME/CFS, or cause an exacerbation of existing ME/CFS symptoms. In relation to shingles and the shingles vaccine:

  • Shingles is caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus. It can be very painful and sometimes leads to a long-lasting painful condition called post-herpetic neuralgia. It can occasionally be fatal.
  • Shingles can occasionally trigger ME/CFS, or cause a significant exacerbation of existing symptoms.

The shingles vaccine appears to be a safe and effective option. Although it does not provide 100% protection, it will reduce the severity and length of an attack and reduce the chances of developing post-herpetic neuralgia. There are two shingles vaccines: Zostavax (a live vaccine) and Shingrix (a non-live vaccine). With both vaccines, it’s quite common to get redness and discomfort at the vaccination site, headaches, and fatigue, but these side-effects should not last more than a few days. See your GP if you have side-effects that last longer than a few days, or if you develop a rash after having the shingles vaccination.

  • You should not have the shingles vaccine if you’ve had a serious allergic reaction in the past to a previous dose of the shingles vaccine, or to any of the ingredients in the vaccine, or to a previous dose of varicella (chickenpox) vaccine.
  • If you have a weakened immune system your GP will assess which vaccine is suitable for you. Discuss any health concerns with your GP before you have the vaccine.
  • Zostavax (the live vaccine) is not suitable for people who have a weakened immune system due to a condition, treatment or medicine.

Although the feedback is limited, we have not received any reports from people with ME/CFS who have had this vaccine and then experienced a significant exacerbation or relapse of their ME/CFS. So, there are several good reasons why people with ME/CFS should consider having this vaccine.

  • Please note that it is normally sensible to defer being vaccinated if you are currently having any significant flu-like symptoms (i.e sore throats, tender glands) in relation to your ME/CFS. This is a decision that patients and doctors have to discuss and I hope you will find this information helpful in coming to a decision.

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MEDICAL DISCLAIMER

Medical Matters is for information purposes only. The answers provided by Dr Shepherd and the ME Association’s other expert advisers should not be construed as medical advice. We recommend that any information you deem relevant is discussed with your GP as soon as possible. It is important to obtain advice from a GP who is in charge of your clinical care, who knows you well, and who can consider other likely causes for symptoms. Seek personalised medical advice whenever a new symptom arises, or an existing symptom worsens. Don't assume that new or worsened symptoms are a result of having ME/CFS.

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