Shingles

Shingles is an infection that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Summary

You can only get shingles if you’ve had chickenpox in the past (usually as a child).

Shingles is also called herpes zoster.

It is most common in people over 50 years of age, but young people can get it as well.

Causes of shingles

After you recover from chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. It moves to the roots of your nerve cells (near the spinal cord) and becomes inactive (dormant). Later, if the virus becomes active again, shingles is the name given to the symptoms it causes.

It is not known what exactly causes the virus to become active again, but there are several possibilities:

  • a weakened immune system (eg, by immune-suppressing medicines, another illness or after major surgery)
  • a complication of cancer or AIDS
  • long-term use of cortisone-type drugs
  • after the skin is injured or sunburned
  • emotional stress.

You can’t catch shingles from someone else. However, if you’ve never had chickenpox, you may get chickenpox from close contact with someone who has shingles – because the blisters contain the chickenpox virus.

Symptoms

The first sign of shingles is often a burning, sharp pain, tingling or numbness in (or under) your skin on one side of your body or face.

The most common site is your back or upper abdomen.

You may have severe itching or aching.

You also may feel tired and ill with fever, chills, headache and upset stomach. 

The rash

1–14 days after you start feeling pain, you’ll notice a rash of small blisters on an area of skin that is red looking.

Because the blisters tend to follow nerve paths they’re usually in a line – often extending from your back around to your tummy, and almost always on just one side.

The rash also may appear on one side of your face or scalp.

A few days after they appear the blisters will turn yellow, then dry and crust over. Over the next 2 weeks the crusts will drop off, and your skin will continue to heal. This can take from several days to weeks.

If you get shingles on your head or scalp, you may get headaches and weakness on one side of your face (causing that side of your face to look droopy). This usually goes away, but it may take many months – especially if you’ve had a lot of weakness of your face muscles.

Other complications

Some people also develop painful eye or ear inflammations and infections with shingles. 

How long it takes to clear up

The pain or irritation from shingles will usually go away in three to five weeks. However, if the virus damages a nerve, you may have pain, numbness or tingling for months or even years after the rash is healed. This chronic condition is most likely to occur in people over 50. Antiviral medicine can help prevent this complication.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Treatment

When you should see your doctor

Go to your doctor as soon as you see the rash, as treatment is most effective if it’s started early.

Your doctor will be able to prescribe antiviral medicine, such as Aciclovir. Antiviral medicine may help you recover faster and will reduce the chance that the pain will last for a long time.

Your doctor may also give you medicine for pain relief.

See your doctor again if:

  • Always see a doctor promptly if you get any blisters on your face.
    your fever or pain gets worse
  • your neck gets stiff, you can’t hear properly or you feel less able to think clearly
  • the blisters show signs of infection (eg, they become more sore or red) or if you see milky yellow drainage from the blister sites.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Self care

  • Take a painkiller such as paracetamol, and any other medicine your doctor prescribes.
  • Put cool, moist washcloths on the rash.
  • Rest in bed during the early stages if you have fever and other symptoms.
  • Try not to let clothing or bedding rub against the rash, as this might irritate it.
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