As part of our Wellness Wednesdays campaign, we’ll be sharing a blog every Wednesday from Healthily – our preferred health partner – to give you tips, advice and guidance on a wide variety of health conditions. This blog is about shingles – what they are, the symptoms and the treatment available.
What are shingles?
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection of a nerve and the skin around it. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox.
It’s estimated around 1-in-4 people will have at least one episode of shingles during their life.
Symptoms of shingles
New blisters may appear for up to a week, but a few days after appearing they become yellowish in colour, flatten and dry out. Scabs then form where the blisters were, which may leave some slight scarring and loss of skin pigment. The pain may be a constant, dull or burning sensation, and its intensity can vary from mild to severe. You may have sharp stabbing pains from time to time, and the affected area of skin will usually be tender.
In some cases, shingles may cause some early symptoms that develop a few days before the painful rash first appears.
These early symptoms can include:
- a headache;
- burning, tingling, numbness or itchiness of the skin in the affected area;
- a feeling of being generally unwell;
- a high temperature (fever).
An episode of shingles typically lasts around 2-4 weeks. It usually affects a specific area on just one side of the body. It doesn’t cross over the midline of the body; an imaginary line running from between your eyes down past the belly button.
Any part of your body can be affected, including your face and eyes, but the chest and tummy (abdomen) are the most common areas.
When to get medical advice
Shingles isn’t usually serious but see your doctor as soon as possible if you recognise the symptoms. They’ll usually be able to diagnose shingles based on your symptoms and the appearance of the rash.
Early treatment may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and the risk of developing complications.
Is shingles contagious?
It’s not possible to catch shingles from someone with the condition or from someone with chickenpox.
However, you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if you haven’t had chickenpox before, but this is uncommon.
The blisters of shingles contain the live virus. If a person who has never had chickenpox makes direct contact with an open blister or something with the fluid on it, they can contract the virus and develop chickenpox.
Preventing the spread of the virus
If you have shingles, you’re contagious until the last blister has dried and scabbed over.
To help prevent the virus being passed on, avoid sharing towels or flannels, swimming or playing contact sports. You should also avoid work or school if your rash is oozing fluid (weeping) and can’t be covered.
Chickenpox can be particularly dangerous for certain groups of people. If you have shingles, avoid:
- women who are pregnant and haven’t had chickenpox before as they could catch it from you – this may harm their unborn baby;
- people who have a weak immune system – such as someone with HIV or AIDS;
- babies less than one month old – unless it’s your own baby, in which case your baby should have proteins that fight infection (antibodies) to protect them from the virus.
Although there’s no cure for shingles, treatment is available to relieve the symptoms until the condition resolves. Most cases of shingles last around 2 to 4 weeks.
Treatment for shingles can include:
- covering the rash with clothing or a non-stick (non-adherent) dressing to reduce the risk of other people becoming infected with chickenpox – it’s very difficult to pass the virus on to someone else if the rash is covered;
- pain-killing medication – such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or codeine;
- antiviral medication to stop the virus multiplying – although not everyone will need this.