Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

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This content is for information purposes only and is not provided with the intention of diagnosing a condition or illness. You should speak to a medical professional for diagnosis.

Shingles is a painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox1. The rash develops into itchy fluid-filled blisters which usually appear on one side of the face or body and can take several weeks to settle1&2. Tender, painful skin, tiredness, headache and photophobia (sensitivity to light) may occur two or three days before the rash appears2.

Shingles is a serious illness as it can cause severe nerve pain that can last for months3 (known as post-herpetic neuralgia). It can also lead to3:

  • Serious eye problems, including blindness
  • Pneumonia
  • Hearing problems
  • Encephalitis (swelling of the brain)
  • Death

Shingles can occur at any age, but it usually affects older adults3. Around 1 in 3 people will develop shingles at some stage during their lifetime. It’s rare to have shingles more than once in your life2.

What’s the difference between shingles and chickenpox?

The first time you catch the varicella-zoster virus, regardless of the severity, you get chickenpox2. The virus stays in your body and can reactivate later in life – when it reactivates, it’s called shingles3.

If you haven’t had chickenpox, you can’t get shingles. But you can be infected with chickenpox from someone who has shingles if you come into contact with the fluid from shingles blisters3.

How do you get shingles?

Shingles is the disease that arises when the chickenpox virus (varicella zoster) reactivates. This virus remains dormant in the nerve cells of your body after an attack of chickenpox2.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Common symptoms of shingles include3:

  • A tingling, burning sensation in the area where the rash will appear
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Photophobia (discomfort when looking at bright lights)

Shingles can affect any part of the body, however, the chest and lumbar region are most commonly affected. The rash often takes the shape of a belt from the midline on one side of the body2. This pattern is explained because the virus works down the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord.

How is shingles diagnosed?

If you are experiencing these symptoms or think you may have shingles, you should see your doctor as soon as possible to be assessed. They can test some of the fluid from your blisters to see if it contains the varicella-zoster virus3.

What causes shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox in the past can develop shingles but it often occurs with no known trigger. However, it’s more likely to occur if you1:

  • Are 60 years old or more
  • Are physically and emotionally stressed
  • Have HIV and AIDS
  • Have had an organ transplant
  • Have recently had a bone marrow transplant
  • Have a condition which requires treatment that impacts the immune system, such as chemotherapy

How is shingles treated?

There is no cure for shingles, but it can be treated with antiviral medication which may lessen its severity and help prevent complications4. This medication is usually most effective if you start it within three days of the rash appearing.

Over-the-counter medications, such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, can generally be used for pain relief4. You can also use cold, wet compresses and products such as calamine lotion to help relieve the itchiness.

Is shingles contagious?

Yes however, shingles is less contagious than chickenpox as it can only be spread when someone comes into contact with the fluid from your blisters3. The risk of spreading shingles is low if the rash is covered. When the rash has developed crusts, you are no longer infectious.

If you have shingles, you should cover the rash, avoid touching or scratching it, and wash your hands often to prevent the virus from spreading. Avoid contact with people who may be more at risk, such as pregnant women who are not immune to chickenpox, people with a weak immune system and babies less than one month old3.

Can I be immunised against shingles?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself from the effects of shingles. By getting vaccinated, you can also help protect other people, especially those who are unable to be vaccinated4. Being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get shingles, but it will reduce your chance of developing the condition.

Anyone over 50 years old who wants to protect themselves against shingles can talk to their doctor about getting immunised4. The shingles vaccine is given as a needle and is provided to Australians who are 70 years old for free, as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). A catch-up vaccination is also available for 71 to 79 years olds until 31 October 20216.

What are the possible side effects of the shingles immunisation?

All medicines and vaccines can have side effects. For most people, the chance of having a serious side effect from a vaccine is much lower than the chance of serious harm if you caught the disease5.

Common side effects of the shingles vaccine include5:

  • Pain, redness, swelling or itching where the needle was inserted
  • Headache
  • Tiredness

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