What causes shingles

The varicella zoster virus causes shingles. It’s the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Shingles is a painful skin rash – with blisters – that can occur anywhere on the body but usually shows up in a strip on either side. In some cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face.

A shingles infection can be very serious. It can lead to complications such as loss of vision and debilitating nerve pain.

Know your shingles risk

You can get shingles at any age if you’ve had chickenpox.

But older adults and those who are immunocompromised (e.g. HIV+, defects in T-cell function) get it most often. Two-thirds of shingles cases in Canada happen to people over 50 years old. The severity of shingles and its complications also increase with age.

Age is the most important risk factor.

Shingles not contagious

You can’t get shingles from someone who has it, or pick it up from a particular environment.

The varicella virus can be passed from one person to another, but only when:

  • a person has shingles with a rash in the blister phase
  • the other person has not had chickenpox

In this case the person exposed to the virus might develop chickenpox but would not develop shingles.

Vaccine effectiveness and safety

The vaccine reduces your chance of getting the virus by more than 50%, depending on your age. Vaccine effectiveness is higher among seniors between 65 and 70 years old.

No vaccine is 100% effective. If you get vaccinated, you may still develop shingles. But the infection would likely be less severe and you’d be better protected from complications.

The vaccine has been licenced by Health Canada, having met all requirements under the Food and Drugs Act.

Transition to Shingrix®

Starting mid-October 2020, the Ontario publicly funded shingles immunization program, available for Ontario seniors ages 65 to 70 years, began transitioning from funding the Zostavax® II to the Shingrix® vaccine. The program eligibility remains the same, however Shingrix® is provided in a two-dose series.

For more information about the changes to the shingles immunization program or the new vaccine, read the fact sheet or consult with your doctor or primary care provider.

How you qualify

To be eligible to get the free shingles vaccine in Ontario, you must be 65 to 70 years old and have not previously received a publicly funded shingles vaccine.

Since immunization services have been impacted over the past year as a result of physical distancing and other public health measures in response to the COVID‑19 pandemic, individuals born from 1949 to 1951 who missed the opportunity to receive the publicly funded shingles vaccine are eligible to receive Shingrix® and complete the 2-dose series by December 31, 2022.

If you don’t qualify

If you don’t qualify for the free shingles vaccine, you can still get vaccinated with a prescription from your family doctor or other primary care provider. But you have to pay for it yourself.

You would then buy the vaccine at your pharmacy and take it back to your doctor to get the shot.

Where you get it

Get free shingles vaccine from your family doctor or other primary care provider (e.g. nurse practitioner).

Vaccines and immunization

Find out about other free vaccines and immunization you can get in Ontario – for babies and toddlers, children at school, for adults and seniors.