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All about shingles

Jane Murphy / 02 November 2017

Shingles affects around one in four people – and risk increases with age. Find out about the causes, symptoms and whether you're eligible for a vaccination.

Shingles is known as herpes zoster

Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the surrounding skin, which results in an extremely painful, itchy rash.

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What causes shingles?

Also known as herpes zoster, the condition is caused by the varicella-zoster virus – the same virus that causes chickenpox.

If you've had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus can continue to lie dormant in the nervous system for years afterwards. It may then become active again much later on – multiplying and moving along the nerve fibres until it breaks out on the skin. Around 20 per cent of people who have had chickenpox will have a shingles attack later in life.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The most predominant symptom is pain, which may be accompanied by a burning or tingling sensation on the skin. You may also have a headache, high temperature and generally feel very weak.

The rash tends to follow one or two days after the pain first appears. It typically affects just one side of the body – and is most commonly seen on the chest or stomach, although it can appear anywhere.

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Symptoms of a shingles rash

It's far from pleasant, as you'd imagine. It starts off as groups of red spots, but these quickly turn into fluid-filled blisters. Some of these blisters will burst, while others fill up with blood or pus. Eventually, they'll turn yellow, dry out and scab over. The scabs drop off within around three weeks.

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How is shingles treated?

Shingles itself can't be cured – but there's plenty you can do to relieve the symptoms.

Keep the rash as dry and clean as possible, wear loose-fitting clothing and use non-stick dressings. Try applying calamine lotion to soothe and cool the skin. A cold compress may also help – but never use it for more than 20 minutes, to avoid aggravating the blisters.

Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, will help ease the aches and soreness. Your GP may also prescribe a course of antiviral tablets, but these are most effective if taken within 72 hours of the rash first appearing. They can reduce the severity and length of the shingles episode, as well as prevent further complications.

How long does shingles last?

Most shingles attacks clear up within two to four weeks. However, the intense nerve pain and itching may sometimes persist long after the rash has gone. This condition is known as post-herpetic neuralgia, and affects older people in particular. It's normally treated with prescription painkillers. Most people will make a full recovery within a year.

Will shingles recur?

It's possible to get shingles more than once – but incredibly rare to get it more than twice.

Can I catch shingles from someone else?

No, but you can catch chickenpox from a person with shingles if you haven't had it before – so do take care, particularly when you're around someone with open blisters. Never share towels, flannels or cloths.

Aside from having had chickenpox, what are the main risk factors for shingles?

The virus is most likely to become reactivated as a result of a weakened immune system –for example, due to HIV, leukaemia or cancer treatment. Physical and emotional stress can also weaken your immunity.

Lastly, immunity naturally decreases with age, which is why shingles most commonly affects the over-70s.

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Is there a shingles vaccine?

Yes. It's given as a one-off jab in the arm, and is available free to some people in their 70s on the NHS.

You're currently eligible for the vaccine if you're aged 70 or 78. In addition, anyone who was eligible for immunisation in the previous three years of the programme remains eligible until their 80th birthday. The vaccination isn't given to anyone over 80 as it doesn't appear to be effective for this age group. Speak to your GP or find out more on the NHS website.

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.