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Edited by Dr Claudia Pastides, 18th December 2019

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection. What makes shingles a unique infection is that the virus which causes it has been fast asleep in the body for many years before the shingles rash comes up.

The virus that causes shingles is the very same virus that will have caused chickenpox, except it decided to hang around somewhere in the body, doing nothing, just sitting in the spinal cord, only to awaken again at some point in the future.

We don’t always know what causes the varicella zoster virus to wake up and cause shingles, but a common reason is if a person’s immune system is lowered, for example by stress or a period of illness.

Read on to discover the symptoms and treatment of shingles - and speak with a doctor today if you believe you may be suffering from this condition. Shingles is best treated within 3 days of the rash first appearing, so don’t delay speaking to a doctor.

The symptoms of shingles

Due to the virus settling in one part of the spinal cord, the painful blistery red rash that appears with shingles usually happens on one side of the body and along a defined strip of skin. This strip of skin is the one supplied by the nerve coming from the spinal cord where the virus has been asleep.

Before the rash appears, some people feel generally unwell and get a tingly or burning sensation over the skin.

Once the rash has gone, some can have long term nerve pain in the area where the rash was. This is called postherpetic neuralgia.

Is shingles contagious?

If someone has shingles, they can’t pass shingles on to someone else. However, because shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus, they CAN pass on chickenpox to someone that has never had chickenpox before.

If a person has shingles, they are contagious whilst they have the rash up until the blisters of the rash all crust over. This can take between 2 and 4 weeks.

As a result, people with shingles should try and stay away from anyone who might be at risk of catching chickenpox and at risk of becoming very unwell with it, for example:

  • Women who are pregnant and have never had chickenpox. (Women who are pregnant and have had chickenpox before will be immune to the virus and are not at risk.)
  • People with a weakened immune system, such as HIV/AIDS
  • Very young babies, less than a month old

How shingles is treated

Shingles is often treated with antiviral medication. This medication can reduce the length of time someone has the rash and reduce the chances of long lasting nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia) once the rash has gone.

The painful rash can be soothed by applying a cool compress a few times a day or taking painkillers.

It is also a good idea to wear loose fitting clothing over the rash to keep it covered, as this will prevent the virus from being spread to others.

A shingles vaccine is available and it reduces the chances of a person having shingles or severe shingles by about 90%. Some people might still get shingles despite having the vaccine, but it will be milder.

Frequently asked questions about shingles

1. How long does the Shingrix vaccine last?

Shingrix is the new shingles vaccine. We know from studies that, for most people, Shingrix protects for at least 4 years, and it is likely to protect for even longer than that.1

2. How can I get rid of shingles fast?

There is no quick way to get rid of shingles unfortunately. Antiviral medication can help reduce the length of time you have the rash and the severity too, but it needs to be started within 3 days of symptoms beginning. The best thing to do is to prevent shingles by having the vaccine.

3. How do you know if you have shingles?

Shingles typically looks like in the picture below. It is a red, blistery and sore or itchy rash that affects one distinct part of the body. The best way of knowing for sure if you have shingles is by speaking to a doctor.

4. How long is shingles contagious for?

Shingles is contagious from the moment the blistery rash appears until the last blister has fully crusted over. This can take between 2 and 4 weeks.

5. Is shingles serious?

No. Most of the time it isn’t. It tends to be a mild infection that is an uncomfortable nuisance in 9 out of 10 cases. However for some, it can leave long lasting nerve pain (called postherpetic neuralgia) or be very serious, for example:

  • If you get shingles in or around the eye, it can lead to loss of vision. So if someone gets a shingles-like rash around their eye or on their face, it is important that they see a doctor as soon as possible.
  • Rarely shingles can cause inflammation of the brain, hearing problems or weakness in the muscles of the face
  • Severe skin infections by bacteria can happen on top of the viral rash

If you think you might be suffering from shingles, contact a GP today to discuss it.