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Generic name: zoster vaccine live
Drug class: Viral vaccines

Medically reviewed by  A Ras MD.

What is Zostavax?

Zostavax is a prescription medicine that is used to prevent shingles.


ZOSTAVAX is a lyophilized preparation of the Oka/Merck strain of live, attenuated varicella-zoster virus (VZV). ZOSTAVAX, when reconstituted as directed, is a sterile suspension for subcutaneous administration. Each 0.65-mL dose contains a minimum of 19,400 PFU (plaque-forming units) of Oka/Merck strain of VZV when reconstituted and stored at room temperature for up to 30 minutes.

Each dose contains 31.16 mg of sucrose, 15.58 mg of hydrolyzed porcine gelatin, 3.99 mg of sodium chloride, 0.62 mg of monosodium L-glutamate, 0.57 mg of sodium phosphate dibasic, 0.10 mg of potassium phosphate monobasic, 0.10 mg of potassium chloride; residual components of MRC-5 cells including DNA and protein; and trace quantities of neomycin and bovine calf serum. The product contains no preservatives.

 Mechanism of Action

The risk of developing zoster appears to be related to a decline in VZV-specific immunity. ZOSTAVAX was shown to boost VZV-specific immunity, which is thought to be the mechanism by which it protects against zoster and its complications.

Herpes zoster (HZ), commonly known as shingles or zoster, is a manifestation of the reactivation of varicella zoster virus (VZV), which, as a primary infection, produces chickenpox (varicella). Following initial infection, the virus remains latent in the dorsal root or cranial sensory ganglia until it reactivates, producing zoster. Zoster is characterized by a unilateral, painful, vesicular cutaneous eruption with a dermatomal distribution.

Pain associated with zoster may occur during the prodrome, the acute eruptive phase, and the postherpetic phase of the infection. Pain occurring in the postherpetic phase of infection is commonly referred to as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Serious complications, such as PHN, scarring, bacterial superinfection, allodynia, cranial and motor neuron palsies, pneumonia, encephalitis, visual impairment, hearing loss, and death can occur as the result of zoster.

Before taking Zostavax, tell your doctor:

For all patients taking Zostavax:

  • If you are allergic to Zostavax; any part of this medicine; or any other drugs, foods, or substances. Tell your doctor about the allergy and what signs you had.
  • If you have any of these health problems: Active TB (tuberculosis) that is not being treated, certain blood or bone marrow problems like leukemia or lymphoma, a fever, a weak immune system, or a disease that may cause a weak immune system like HIV or AIDS.
  • If you are taking any drugs to suppress your immune system. This may be certain doses of steroids like prednisone. There are many drugs that can suppress your immune system. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure.
  • If you are pregnant or plan to get pregnant within the next 3 months. Do not take Zostavax if you are pregnant or if you are planning to get pregnant within the next 3 months.


  • If the patient is a child. Do not give Zostavax to a child.

This is not a list of all drugs or health problems that interact with this medicine.

Tell your doctor and pharmacist about all of your drugs (prescription or OTC, natural products, vitamins) and health problems. You must check to make sure that it is safe for you to take Zostavax with all of your drugs and health problems. Do not start, stop, or change the dose of any drug without checking with your doctor.

What are some things I need to know or do while I take Zostavax?

  • Tell all of your health care providers that you take Zostavax. This includes your doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists.
  • This medicine may not protect all people who use it. Talk with the doctor.
  • Tell your doctor if you will be in close contact with newborns, pregnant women who have not had chickenpox or have not had the chickenpox vaccine, or people with a weak immune system. You could spread the vaccine virus to these people. Your doctor will tell you who to avoid close contact with.
  • If you have a weak immune system, talk with your doctor. Deadly viral disease has happened in people with a weak immune system after getting Zostavax.
  • Tell your doctor if you have recently had a vaccine or before getting any other vaccine.
  • This medicine may cause harm to the unborn baby if you take it while you are pregnant.
  • If you get pregnant within 3 months after getting Zostavax, call your doctor right away.
  • Tell your doctor if you are breast-feeding. You will need to talk about any risks to your baby.

How is Zostavax best taken?

Use Zostavax as ordered by your doctor. Read all information given to you. Follow all instructions closely.

  • It is given as a shot into the fatty part of the skin.

What do I do if I miss a dose?

  • Call your doctor to find out what to do.

What are the side effects of Zostavax that I need to call my doctor about immediately?

WARNING/CAUTION: Even though it may be rare, some people may have very bad and sometimes deadly side effects when taking a drug. Tell your doctor or get medical help right away if you have any of the following signs or symptoms that may be related to a very bad side effect:

  • Signs of an allergic reaction, like rash; hives; itching; red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin with or without fever; wheezing; tightness in the chest or throat; trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking; unusual hoarseness; or swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat.

What are some other side effects of Zostavax?

All drugs may cause side effects. However, many people have no side effects or only have minor side effects. Call your doctor or get medical help if any of these side effects or any other side effects bother you or do not go away:

  • Pain where the shot was given.
  • Redness or swelling where the shot is given.
  • Irritation where the shot is given.
  • Itching.
  • Headache.

These are not all of the side effects that may occur. If you have questions about side effects, call your doctor. Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects.

You may report side effects to the FDA at 1-800-332-1088. You may also report side effects at https://www.fda.gov/medwatch.

If overdose is suspected:

If you think there has been an overdose, call your poison control center or get medical care right away. Be ready to tell or show what was taken, how much, and when it happened.

How do I store and/or throw out Zostavax?

  • If you need to store Zostavax at home, talk with your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about how to store it.



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