What is shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, being part of a herpes viruses group, is a viral infection that results in a skin rash that is very painful which normally starts as red blisters wrapping around either side of the torso. However, it can appear anywhere on the body.

It is caused by same virus as chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus, which can lay dormant in your body years after you have had chickenpox. The virus lies inactive in the nerve tissue near your brain and spinal cord.

It is not a fatal condition, and although painful, it can be treated to help lessen the symptoms and chance of complications. Most cases clear up within a few weeks. Vaccines are also available for reducing the risk of shingles.

Shingles most commonly appears in adults and those who suffer from a weak immune system, it can also develop from stress, injury and other reasons such as taking medication that may weaken the immune system, steroids are an example of this. It is also possible to get shingles more than once, although this is uncommon in most cases.

In the following article, we will take an in-depth look into shingles, it’s causes, symptoms, and treatment as well as cover any further questions you may have.  Please keep in mind that this article is intended to be used only as a guideline and not as a professional opinion. It is always best to consult with a doctor or healthcare professional for that.


What causes shingles?

As mentioned, the cause of shingles is when the same virus that causes chickenpox ‘wakes up’ again in your body after having been dormant for years. In some people this virus can lay dormant for their entire lives, in others however, it can flare up again, and not result in another case of chickenpox, but rather shingles. Research is still being conducted to figure out why this happens.

The process of shingles is as follows:

  1. First, you will become infected with chickenpox, usually if you have not been vaccinated against it. Once you have had chickenpox you cannot get it again. Infection occurs when you are exposed to someone with the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the cause of shingles and chickenpox.
  2. The virus will lay dormant in your system for years after infection.
  3. When and if the virus reactivates, you will get shingles.
  4. Your infection can be spread to others if they have not had chickenpox before, they therefore stand the risk of infection through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. However, they will get chickenpox and not shingles as chickenpox is the primary infection cause by the virus.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The symptoms normally appear in stages. Pain being the first symptom. Sometimes this pain can be misdiagnosed as kidney, lung or heart issues, depending on the location. This is due to some people suffering from the pain of shingles and not developing a rash.  

The shingles rash is the most common sign of shingles. It typically appears on one side of the body and occurs in small red patches. It will likely develop fluid-filled blisters that break easily and crust over, this fluid is contagious to others who have never have chickenpox. The rash may also wrap around from the torso to the spine and even appear on the face and ears. It will itch and be uncomfortably painful.

The blisters may take two to four weeks to heal and are likely to leave scars depending on their severity and treatment.

Some people are also susceptible to experiencing symptoms beyond the rash and pain. These symptoms are often fever, headaches, fatigue and muscle weakness. In some cases, the rash can spread to the eyes. This is considered serious and should result in immediate consultation with a doctor as it may lead to permanent eye problems if left untreated. The same problem arises if the rash moves to the ears, which can result in possible ear infections. Other bacterial infections are also likely to be picked up through open skin from the rash.

When should I call a doctor? 

If you are experiencing the symptoms of shingles, early treatment is advised. If the rash has moved to the nose, eyes or ears, call a doctor immediately. If you are over 70 years of age or have a weakened immune system, the risk of shingles is increased, therefore, consulting with your doctor about possible precautionary options is advised.

Am I at risk for shingles?

If you have ever had chickenpox, you are at risk of getting shingles. Most adults have had chickenpox in their childhood due to this being before the time of routine vaccinations for diseases like chickenpox. That being said, there are a number of risk factors associated with shingles, these include:

  • Being older than the age of 60 increases your risk as you may have had chickenpox before and the virus may activate again.
  • Having diseases that may weaken your immune system such as AIDS, HIV and cancer.
  • Undergoing treatments for cancer such as radiation and chemotherapy can take a toll on your immune system.
  • Taking certain medications that are designed to stop your body in rejecting a new organ, as well as long-term use of drugs such as steroids and prednisone.
  • Experiencing high levels of stress which weakens the immune system.

How is shingles diagnosed?

In most situations, a doctor will perform a physical examination of the rash and blisters, the doctor may also ask you a series of questions in order to find out more about your medical history.

Rarely, the doctor may also check a sample of the fluid in the blisters using a sterile swab to collect it. The samples are then sent to a lab for testing so as to confirm that the shingles virus is present.  

What is the treatment for shingles?

If you have shingles, your doctor will promptly begin prescription antiviral medication to help speed up the healing process and reduce your risk of any complications. Topical treatments may also be prescribed to aid in the itching and pain of your rash.

Medications include:

  • Antiviral medications such as acyclovir, famciclovir and valaciclovir – these oral drugs aid in reducing pain and speeding up the recovery process.
  • Narcotic medication to reduce pain - taken orally.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the swelling of the rash and ease your pain – taken orally.
  • Anti-depressants prescribed for those suffering from prolonged pain.
  • Numbing gels, creams or patches to be applied to the rash as needed.
  • Capsaicin is given to reduce the risk of associated nerve pain which can occur after the recovery from shingles.

Your doctor may also talk to you about making sure you do the following home-treatments to aid in a swift recovery:

  • Get plenty of rest and sleep.
  • Apply wet and cold compresses to the rash in order to ease the itching and pain.
  • Take oatmeal baths is also known to reduce inflammation and pain.

If your symptoms do not respond to medication and have not gotten better within 10 days of diagnosis, it is best that you call your doctor for a re-evaluation and treatment.

Rash after treatment

How can I prevent shingles?

There are two vaccines that can be administered to prevent shingles. These being the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine and the shingles (varicella-zoster) vaccine.

The chickenpox vaccine, known as Varivax, is a routine childhood vaccine to stop the spread of chickenpox. It is also advised that adults who have never had chickenpox get the vaccine, as chickenpox at an older age can have more severe symptoms. The vaccine does not guarantee that you will not get chickenpox, but it does reduce your chances of contracting it and can help in lessening symptoms and complications.  

The shingles vaccine, known as Zostavax, like the chickenpox vaccine, does not guarantee you won’t get shingles, but it will reduce the severity of the disease. It is recommended for those who are 60 years or older, regardless of if they have had shingles or not. Although, the vaccine has been approved for those over the age of 50.

Zostavax is given as a single injection in the upper arm, but your doctor may have another preference of the site of injection. The side effects can include pain, tenderness and swelling around the site of the injection, on rare occasions a headache is also a side effect. The vaccine is not intended as a treatment, but purely as a preventative measure. It also should not be given to those with a weakened immune system.

How can I prevent the spread of my shingles? 

If you have shingles, there are certain steps to be taken so as to stop the spread of the infection. These steps are:

  • Keeping the area of your rash covered so that it doesn’t come into contact with someone else’s skin.
  • Frequently washing your hands to stop the spread of infection.
  • Avoiding people who haven’t had chickenpox before or those with a weakened immune system.

What are some complications related to shingles?

It is always important to monitor your symptoms so that you can prevent any further complications arising. Complications can include:

  • Eye damage if the rash has spread to the eyes. This damage can be permanent and impact your vision.
  • Bacterial infections occurring through the open blisters, pneumonia is one of them.
  • Your brain or spinal cord becoming inflamed leading to meningitis or encephalitis, both being serious and life-threatening conditions.

Shingles, if left untreated, can be a severe and sometimes life-threatening condition. However, if detected and treated in the early stages of the condition, it is likely that a swift recovery will take place. Keep in mind that there is no cure for shingles. The virus is known to occur even after someone has already had shingles. It is always best to seek advice and guidance of a healthcare professional should you feel as though you are at risk.

Some more questions you might have about shingles

Is there a vaccine for shingles? 

There is a shingles vaccine for adults that can lower your chances of getting shingles and help in preventing long-term pain after shingles, however this symptom only happens to some people with the disease. If you have shingles and then get the vaccine it can aid in reducing symptoms and often results in the rash clearing up quickly.

Can you catch shingles from someone? 

If someone has shingles, they can pass the varicella-zoster virus to people who are not immune to chickenpox, meaning they have not had it or have not been vaccinated against it. This can occur through coming into direct contact with the exposed and open sores of the shingles rash. But, once the person has become infected, they will develop chickenpox and not shingles. Although, as the virus lays dormant for a number of years after infection, they may be at risk of it reactivating and when it does, they will get shingles.

Can you get shingles if you haven't had chickenpox? 

If you have never had chickenpox and you touch the open wound of someone with the shingles rash, you are likely to get the varicella-zoster virus. But this will first result in chickenpox, and only years later, as the virus stays in your system forever, may it result in shingles if the virus reactivates.

Do shingles itch?

Shingles is known for its red rash which normally forms a band around either side of your torso and sometimes appears on your face, but it can occur anywhere on the body.

The rash is often itchy and painful. Speak to your doctor about creams and ointments to help soothe any itching or burning sensation you may be experiencing.

Can you get shingles if you have had the chickenpox vaccine? 

Only someone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. However, if you have been vaccinated against chickenpox and have never had it, it is highly unlikely you will be at risk of contracting shingles, but it is always advised to speak to your doctor about your vaccination history if you are unsure.

Does stress cause shingles?

Shingles is not directly caused by stress, but stress may weaken the immune system of a person who has the virus responsible for shingles lying dormant in their system, thus allowing the virus to reactivate and cause shingles.

Disclaimer - is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or illness or act as a substitute for professional medical advice.