What is shingles? Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the skin around it. It usually starts with tingling or burning in an area of skin, and is followed by the eruption of a painful rash, usually on one side of the body or face, that takes 2 to 4 weeks to resolve. Sometimes the eye can also be affected.
Why do people develop shingles? Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus. After people have chickenpox – usually as a child – the virus travels up a nerve root and lies dormant (inactive inside you, near the spine). Later in life, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles. The reasons for reactivation aren’t completely known. Reaching an older age or having conditions that affect the immune system make the virus much more likely to reactivate.
How likely am I to get shingles? About 1 in 4 people develop shingles during their lifetime. As we get older we are much more likely to develop shingles, due to changes and natural weakening of the immune system.
Can I get shingles more than once? It’s possible to get shingles more than once, although fortunately fewer than 10% of people who have a first attack will ever have another one.
Can shingles be infectious? The blisters of shingles contain chickenpox virus. While they are not highly contagious, it is still possible to transmit chickenpox to people who’ve not had it already. Until the shingles blisters are crusted over it is advised to avoid contact with pregnant women, children who’ve not had chickenpox, and people who have a severely impaired immune system. While the blisters are full of fluid it is important to keep them covered. Once the blisters have crusted over you are no longer infectious.
What are the long-term effects of shingles? Shingles usually resolves within 4 weeks. However, some people go on to develop chronic nerve pain called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is an ongoing, severe nerve pain in the area affected by the rash, and is the most common complication of shingles which in some people can go on for months or years. The older you get shingles, the more likely you are to develop PHN. PHN can affect quality of life, and for some people, even a slight breeze against the skin can be painful and distressing. In up to 1 in 5 causes the eye is affected by shingles, known as ophthalmic shingles. This can lead to permanent visual problems.
What is the treatment for shingles? The treatment options vary from person to person, depending on the area affected by shingles. It is important to see you GP as soon as possible after the rash occurs, as some treatments work best when given early. Your GP may prescribe painkilling and/or anti-viral medication.
Can shingles be prevented? There is now a vaccine for shingles. The vaccine reduces the chances of you developing shingles, and even if you do develop shingles then the disease is likely to affect you less severely. The national shingles immunisation programme is recommended for people aged 70 – 79. Your GP surgery will be in contact with you if you are eligible for the vaccine.
Who will get the vaccine? Vaccine groups are defined by age and you can have the shingles vaccination at any time of year, as soon as you turn 70 or 78.
What about people who are not aged 70 to 79? People under 70 will be offered the shingles vaccine in the year following their seventieth birthday. People aged 80 and over are not part of the national programme because it seems to be less effective in this age group.
Find out more about who is eligible for shingles vaccination.