What Is Shingles and Am I at Risk of Getting It?

At a glance:

  • Shingles is caused by reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox
  • Shingles only affects people who have had chickenpox
  • The varicella-zoster virus is transmissible but can’t cause shingles but can cause chickenpox in someone who has not had the disease before
  • Shingles causes a painful, blistering rash that typically lasts for around 14 days
  • People over 50 are at much higher risk of developing shingles
  • In some cases, the pain caused by shingles can last months or even years. This is known as post-herpetic neuralgia
  • In severe cases, shingles can cause brain swelling, hearing loss, eye problems, pneumonia and rarely, even death
  • Shingles or chickenpox vaccination are the main ways of avoiding shingles

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a painful viral disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (vzv), the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles only occurs in people who have had chickenpox as the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in the nerves of someone who has had chickenpox, allowing it to reactivate. Shingles presents as a group of painful blisters, usually in a concentrated area on one side of the body, most commonly the face, back chest or abdomen. The pain often develops before the blisters.

Shingles is a serious disease and while most people who develop shingles will only experience a painful, blistering rash, shingles can also lead to much more serious outcomes including eye problems, pneumonia, brain swelling, hearing loss and even death. 

 The fluid from the blisters contains the varicella-zoster virus and the material is infectious but people cannot contract shingles through contact with a shingles patient. If someone who has not had chickenpox and is not up to date with immunisation comes in contact with the fluid contained in the blisters of someone with shingles (either by direct contact or by touching a dressing or article of clothing that may be covered in fluids) they may develop chickenpox, which in turn may develop into shingles later in life.

Shingles is quite common, with around one in three people who have had chickenpox experiencing shingles at some time during their lives.

If you have a painful rash, don’t wait for it to go away by itself. Shingles is a serious disease that requires medical attention and the earlier, the better. To find and book a doctor’s appointment for treatment, or to organise a shingles immunisation, the easiest and most convenient way to do it is online with MyHealth1st. 

What Causes Shingles?

Aside from having contracted chickenpox in the past there is no known cause of shingles. Triggers for attacks of shingles can vary markedly from person to person but there are a number of factors that can increase the likelihood of developing shingles. These factors include:

  • Age - although it isn’t unheard of for young people to get shingles it’s far more common in older people, with chances increasing after the age of 50.
  • Stress - both physical and emotional stress can trigger shingles.
  • Suppressed Immune Response - Conditions and medications that suppress or compromise the immune system can increase the likelihood of shingles. Conditions include HIV and AIDS, organ and bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy for cancer. Medications that suppress the immune system, often used for the control of autoimmune diseases can also increase the chance of shingles.

Symptoms of Shingles

Before the rash even appears, people with shingles may experience a number of symptoms, including pain or tingling in the area where the rash will form, tiredness or fatigue , a headache and photophobia (a sensitivity or aversion to bright light). These symptoms may appear two or three days before the rash.

The rash itself is made up of red spots that are tiny, fluid filled blisters, usually appearing as a belt or band due to the virus working down the nerves branching from the spinal cord. These blisters can be extremely painful, and while most cases of shingles clear up in around 2 weeks, in some cases the pain can last for months or even years due to the virus affecting the nerves along which it has travelled. This ongoing pain is known as post-herpetic neuralgia.

As the disease progresses, the rash may change from tiny blisters to a crusted mass. The skin usually clears after shingles but the disease can lead to scarring. While shingles is common, it’s fairly rare for it to recur, with most people who get shingles only having a single episode. 

Treatment for Shingles

Seeking medical treatment early is key to treating shingles. If diagnosed within 72 hours of an outbreak (or preferably 24 hours if possible), antiviral medications can help limit the severity and duration of shingles. In addition to antiviral medications, topical creams and pain relievers may also be prescribed to help deal with the symptoms of shingles.

Immunisation is the best way of avoiding shingles. The Australian Government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) provides free immunisation for chickenpox for people over 18 months and under 20 years old (people over 20 must purchase the vaccine themselves), and free immunisation for shingles for people ages 70 and over. Even if you’ve had shingles in the past, it’s recommended you get the shingles immunisation to be on the safe side. People who are immune compromised cannot get the shingles vaccine. 

If you have shingles, there are a number of things you can do to limit the chances of passing the virus to someone else. 

  • Keep the rash covered - if possible keep a dressing or covering on the site of the rash to stop any fluid that might leak from the blisters.
  • Avoid touching the rash - touching or scratching the rash can cause the blisters to burst releasing the fluid.
  • Observe proper hand hygiene - washing your hands frequently and thoroughly can help prevent the virus from spreading

People with shingles should try and avoid contact with people with compromised immune systems, young children and pregnant women (especially if they have not had chickenpox).

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