Shingles – the symptoms and what should you do

Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is a condition that is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in your nervous system and later in life can reactivate, and cause shingles. It is not fully known what causes the virus to reactivate, but this often occurs many years after the original chickenpox infection. Shingles tend to occur more often in older people and usually causes a painful rash on one side of the body. As older people are more likely to get shingles, the new national shingles immunisation programme for people aged 70 to 79 has been introduced by the Department of Health from September, to help protect those most at risk from shingles.

How likely am I to get shingles?

Around 1 in 4 adults could develop shingles in their lifetime. The immune system weakens with age and so the chance of developing shingles increases as we get older. It is most common and tends to be more severe in people aged over 70 years.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The symptoms of shingles can range from mild to severe and they can be unpleasant for some. They usually affect one side of the body, often on the trunk, or the head, neck or the eye. Shingles usually starts with a headache and tiredness, and you are likely to feel unwell. It’s very common to feel a tingling or burning pain in the area of the skin before the rash appears. In a small proportion of people this may be quite severe. Within a few days to three weeks this area of pain will start to develop a red rash, which then turn in to painful fluid-filled blisters. A few days after appearing, the blisters dry out and scabs form where the blisters have been. It usually takes two to four weeks for the rash to heal completely. Most people recover bus some may experience long-term effects.

What are the long-term effects of shingles?

Most people do not have any long-term effects, but for some shingles can cause complications. The long-term nerve pain that some people experience after shingles is known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). This can be a severe, unpleasant, long-term nerve pain that is often described as burning, stabbing or throbbing. This can last weeks, months for a few people, even years. PHN can affect quality of life, and for some people even a slight breeze against the skin can be painful and distressing.

The older you are, the more likely you are to have long-lasting nerve pain. Sometimes shingles can develop in the eye and/or affect the skin of the eyelid. This can cause severe pain and lead to decreased vision or even permanent blindness in the affected eye. Shingles can also lead to other complications like scarring, skin infections or, rarely, hearing loss.

Are treatments for shingles available?

There are treatments available that can help to ease your symptoms. Shingles varies from person to person and some people will require treatment. See your GP as soon as possible, ideally within 72 hours of the rash occurring, as early treatment may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and the risk of developing complications. Your GP may prescribe painkilling medication or antiviral medication.

Can shingles be prevented?

The new national shingles immunisation programme has been introduced by the Department of Health to help protect those most at risk from shingles and its complication. The shingles vaccine is recommended for 70-79 year olds, however, as the vaccination programme will be phased in over the next few years not everyone will be eligible for the vaccine this year. If eligible, you will be asked to visit your GP surgery.

What about people who are not aged 70 to 79?

People under 70 will be offered the shingles vaccination when they turn 70. People aged 80 and over are not part of the national programme.

Shingles – The facts and the myths

Myth: You can catch shingles from someone with chickenpox.

Fact: Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus within your body, so you cannot catch shingles from anyone else. However, if someone has not had chickenpox they may catch it from someone who has shingles.

Myth: Shingles only affects old or ill people.

Fact: It is possible for anyone who has had chickenpox to develop shingles. The chance of developing shingles are very low before the age of 50, although young and otherwise healthy people do sometimes develop shingles. The immune system weakens with age and so the chance of developing shingles increases as we get older.

Myth: I can’t get shingles because I can’t remember having chickenpox.

Fact: If you have definitely never had chickenpox you can’t develop shingles. However, some people don’t know whether or not they had chickenpox as a child, because the infection may have been so mild it didn’t cause any obvious symptoms. You can still develop shingles even if you have only had a very mild case of chickenpox.

Myth: I’ve already had shingles so I can’t get it again.

Fact: Unfortunately, some people can suffer from more than one episode of shingles. Why this happens is not fully understood, but as we age they immune system does weaken, which may explain why we are more likely to develop shingles the older we are and why it sometimes returns.

Where can I find more information?

For more information about shingles, treatment of shingles and shingles vaccination:

Visit the NHS online to find out more about shingles and what you should do