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 and lead to complications such as loss of vision and debilitating nerve pain.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus which is the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Know your shingles risk

You can get shingles at any age if you’ve had chickenpox, but older adults and those who are immunocompromised (those who are HIV positive or have 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.

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.

Do you qualify for a free vaccine?

Since immunization services were impacted as a result of the COVID‑19 pandemic, individuals born from 1949 to 1953 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, 2024.

To qualify for the free Shingrix® vaccine series, you must:

  • be a senior aged 65 to 70 years old
  • have not received any publicly funded shingles vaccine or have previously paid for a dose of the Zostavax® II vaccine

You can speak with your primary health care provider about decisions around re-vaccination with Shingrix®.

You do not qualify for the free Shingrix® vaccine series if:

  • you are not a senior aged 65 to 70 years old
  • you are a senior aged 65 to 70 years old and you received the publicly funded Zostavax® II vaccine

Eligible seniors can get the free shingles vaccine from their family doctor or other primary care provider.

If you don’t qualify for a free vaccine

If you don’t qualify for the free shingles vaccine, you can still get vaccinated from your family doctor, pharmacist or other primary care provider.

Effectiveness and safety

The vaccine reduces your chance of getting the virus by more than 50%, depending on your age, and better protects you from severe infection and complications.

Vaccine effectiveness is higher among seniors between 65 and 70 years old.

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

Transition to Shingrix®

Since mid-October 2020, the Ontario publicly funded shingles immunization program, available for Ontario seniors ages 65 to 70 years, transitioned from funding the Zostavax® II (Merck Canada Inc.) vaccine to funding the Shingrix® (GSK) vaccine. Shingrix® is provided as a 2-dose immunization series for prevention of Herpes Zoster (shingles).

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.

Who should not receive Shingrix®

You should not get the Shingrix® vaccine if you have any allergies to any of the ingredients in the vaccine. Those with a severe acute illness with or without fever should usually wait until the symptoms subside before being immunized.

Individuals with symptoms of acute respiratory infection, including minor symptoms such as sore throat or runny nose, should defer immunization until you have recovered, as you can pose an unnecessary risk to others and health care providers. Speak with your primary health care providers about decisions around vaccination.

Vaccine side effects

Shingrix®, like all medicines, can cause side effects, although not everyone gets them. The most commonly reported side effects after receiving Shingrix® vaccine are local reactions including pain, redness or swelling at the injection site. Other common side effects that have been reported include headache, stomach and digestive complaints (such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and/or stomach pain), muscle pain, tiredness, chills and fever. These side effects are typically mild to moderate and on average do not last longer than 3 days. It is important to discuss the benefits and risks of Shingrix® vaccination with your primary health care provider.

Call your primary health care provider or go to the nearest emergency department if any of the following adverse reactions develop within 3 days of receiving the vaccine:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • trouble breathing
  • very pale colour and serious drowsiness
  • high fever (over 40°C)
  • convulsions or seizures
  • other serious symptoms (such as “pins and needles” or numbness)

Vaccines and immunization

For more information on the publicly funded Shingrix® vaccine, or any vaccine within Ontario’s publicly funded immunization program, please visit: Ontario.ca/vaccines. You may also contact your primary health care provider or local public health unit.