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What is shingles? (with pictures)

A persons hand showing the distinctive blisters and rash of shingles

You may have heard of chickenpox, but have you heard of shingles?

Shingles—also known as herpes zoster—is a disease caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus.

Shingles is a serious disease and 1 in 10 people have nerve pain (which can be severe) caused by shingles which can sometimes last for months or even years.

Shingles causes a blistering rash and can only develop if you’ve had chickenpox before.

What causes shingles and who is at risk?

If you’ve had chickenpox in the past you can develop shingles.

This is because the inactive chickenpox virus stays in your nerve cells near your spine. When shingles develops it’s because the virus has become active again. Usually, a person will only get shingles once in their lives, but it can sometime occur again if you have a weakened immune system.

Shingles is more likely to occur in people who:

  • are aged over 50
  • have weakened immune systems, for example:
    • have HIV or AIDS
    • have had an organ transplant
    • have recently had a bone marrow transplant
    • have a condition which requires treatment that affects the immune system, such as chemotherapy for cancer.

A shingles rash on the left side of a woman's abdomenWhat are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles presents as a skin rash characterised by pain and blistering. It can affect any part of the body, but usually appears on one side of the face or body.

Symptoms include:

  • pain
  • a burning, tingling or itching sensation
  • a stabbing sensation
  • sensitivity to touch
  • numbness in the affected area of the body
  • sensitivity to light
  • fever and/or headache
  • fatigue

See your doctor as soon as possible if you are experiencing any shingles symptoms, as the sooner you start treatment, the more effective it is.

Can shingles be passed on to others?

You can’t catch shingles from another person with shingles, but the virus responsible for chickenpox can be passed on by someone with shingles to a person who has not had chickenpox (disease) or been vaccinated against it. This can happen when a person comes into contact with the fluid from the blisters. To prevent passing the virus on, keep the rash covered with clothing or a dressing and always clean your hands after you touch the rash or change any dressing.

A blue-eyed woman's face showing a shingles rash and scabs around her eyesWhat are the complications of  shingles?

Shingles gets better without any complications in many people. In others several complications can occur. These include:

  • ongoing nerve pain (post-herpetic neuralgia)
  • shingles occurring in the eye area can result in temporary or permanent vision loss. Your doctor may refer you to an eye specialist for treatment
  • the shingles rash can become infected and you might need antibiotics.

How is shingles treated?

Shingles is generally diagnosed by a doctor, who will usually examine you and may also test the fluid from the blisters. There is no cure for shingles, but it can be treated with antiviral medication. Treatment works best if started within three days and should ideally be started within 24 hours of the rash appearing.

A close up of a persons skin showing a red rash full of blisters distinctive of shinglesShingles and vaccination

The National Immunisation Program provides a free shingles vaccine at 70 years of age. There is a free catch-up program for 71- to 79-year-olds until 31 October 2023.

The (Zostavax®) vaccine is available on prescription to people aged 50 to 69 years and from 80 years, but it must be paid for by the patient.

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Last updated: 8 August 2021