Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that causes chicken pox. It the infection of a nerve and the skin around it.
If you suffered with chicken pox as a child, then the virus can lie dormant in the body and in some unknown cases can develop into shingles later in life. It is a common infection and one in four people will develop shingles during their lifetime.
Shingles normally starts with painful or sensitive skin followed by an itchy rash, which further develop into sores and fluid-filled blisters. Sufferers may experience pain which is constant and dull or often is described as burning sensation (ranging from moderate to severe).
The rash is similar in appearance to chicken pox, with blisters appearing for up to a week from initial symptoms, but which eventually flatten and dry out. The skin rash can end in scarring of the area in some instances. Before the rash appears, some individuals also present other symptoms which include:
- Burning, tingling, numbness or itchiness of the affected skin
- Feeling generally unwell
- A high temperature (fever)
Chicken pox is a common childhood illness and the virus from this lies dormant (inactive) in the nervous system, until it is reactivated later in life, causing shingles. It is possible to get shingles more than once, but it is rare to get it more than twice.
It is unknown why the virus is reactivated later in life, but there is belief that you are more susceptible to shingles if you have a low immune system. This could be due to any of the following:
- Old age – the elderly has a reduced immunity and research shows that shingles is more common in individuals over 70 years old
- Physical and emotional stress – when a person is stressed, chemicals are released that reduces the body’s natural immune defenses
- HIV and AIDS – these infections by their nature lower individual’s immunity
- Bone marrow transplant – this procedure can affect a person’s immune system
- Organ transplants – after a transplant the medication required for the body to accept the organ, can cause reduced immunity
- Chemotherapy – despite being a successful cancer treatment, this medication can weaken the immune system
There is no treatment for shingles, however there is treatment to help the symptoms of shingles. Treatment includes:
- Pain killers – paracetamol, ibuprofen or codeine
- Antiviral medication to stop the virus from multiplying (however not everyone will need this).
Is shingles contagious?
It is not possible to get shingles from someone with the condition or from someone with chicken pox.
However, you can develop chicken pox from someone with shingles if you haven’t had the virus before.
Someone with shingles is most contagious when they have blisters as these contain the live virus. If someone who has not had chicken pox, encounters an open blister, they can contract the virus and develop chicken pox.
When to see a doctor
Shingles is rarely serious, but if you think you have got shingles it is best to see your GP as soon as possible. Early treatment, may prevent the risk of developing serious complications and help prevent severe symptoms. It is uncommon to be referred to hospital with shingles, unless a doctor feels that there are complications. For example:
- A complication of shingles, such as meningitis or encephalitis
- If shingles affects your eyes and it is not managed appropriately then it could lead to permanent vision problems.
It is not always possible to prevent shingles, however in the last couple of years the NHS has offered a vaccine named Zostavax.
This vaccine can reduce the risk of you getting shingles. If you have the vaccine and you still have shingles it may reduce the severity of the condition.
The NHS is offering it to individuals between 70 and 78 years, however there is a set of criteria. Click on the link here to see the shingles age calculator to see if you are eligible.
Word from our GP
“Make sure you rest and avoid contact with other people when you have shingles, to prevent spreading the virus to others who may not have had chicken pox before.”
Dr Parry - read further interview here.
Things to remember
- If you have shingles on your forehead, nose and around your eyes it could develop into ophthalmic shingles. You should seek medical advice as soon as possible.
- Post herpetic neuralgia is persistent pain in the shingles site. This can last between three and six months but in some more unfortunate, sometimes years.