Advice Health

What is Shingles? A Guide

Around in 1 in 4 people will experience shingles at some point in their lives, but not many of us know much about the condition. Despite being relatively common, there are plenty of misconceptions surrounding the illness, what causes it and its symptoms. Here, we take an in-depth look at shingles and give you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the virus.

What Is Shingles?

Caused by the herpes zoster virus, shingles is a viral infection that typically affects a particular part of the body. When active, the virus causes a painful rash and blisters to develop. Usually, these are present on the trunk of the body, but other areas can be affected too. Although shingles is caused by the herpes zoster virus, you won’t necessarily develop the condition as soon as you contract the virus. Instead, the virus typically remains dormant in your body for a substantial length of time. When it becomes ‘reactivated’, the infection affects a nerve root, which is why the condition can cause a significant amount of pain and discomfort. For more information on what shingles is, visit Patient where you will find articles put together by doctors to give you a better understanding.

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Shingles is characterised by a painful rash, which may blister. Often, only one side of the body is affected, so you may notice blisters on the left side of your abdomen, for example. As shingles affects the nerve root, patients often experience nerve-related pain while the virus is active. This can also present as tingling, burning and numbness in the affected area. Despite being sensitive to touch, the area may also feel itchy and uncomfortable, particularly when blisters are forming or weeping. 

When you’re experiencing a shingles infection, you may feel under the weather too. It’s not unusual for people to report feelings of fatigue or sensitivity to light when they’re suffering from shingles, for example. Additionally, a fever and headache are also commonly reported symptoms that can develop alongside shingles. 

What Causes Shingles?

The condition occurs when the virus becomes reactivated inside your body, but it’s unclear exactly why this reactivation occurs. In some cases, shingles may develop following a period of stress or ill health, so it’s possible that these factors could increase the risk of developing the virus. However, many patients report no incidence of stress or illness prior to experiencing symptoms. Due to this, there is still no clear cause for the reactivation of the virus, and, for many people, it occurs ‘out of nowhere’. 

Are Shingles and Chicken Pox the Same?

No. Shingles and chicken pox are both caused by the same virus (herpes zoster), but they’re not the same illness. Chicken pox usually occurs when you are first exposed to the herpes zoster virus. After you have recovered from chicken pox, the virus remains in your system where it can lay dormant for many years. If the virus becomes active again, it causes a shingles infection. Typically, only people who have experienced chicken pox in the past will go on to develop shingles (as the virus is already present in their bodies). 

Is Shingles Contagious?

Not exactly. Shingles isn’t passed on from one person to another, so it’s not contagious in the usual sense. However, if you have shingles, it is possible that you could pass the virus on to someone who has never had chicken pox, which would trigger related symptoms. This means that it’s important to avoid contact with people who could be vulnerable to chicken pox when you’re suffering from shingles, including newborns, pregnant women, elderly people, people with underlying health conditions and/or people who are immunocompromised. 

While shingles is only caused when your body reactivates the virus, this then enables the virus to be spread. If someone in your household has never had chicken pox and you have an outbreak of shingles, for example, you could inadvertently cause them to develop chicken pox. Due to this, some people do describe shingles as contagious. However, the virus is only usually passed from one person to another if there is direct contact with the blisters of a shingles rash. By keeping the area well-dressed, you reduce the likelihood of the virus being transmitted. 

Who Is at Risk from Shingles?

Anyone who has had chicken pox in the past can develop shingles and the exact cause of the virus reactivation is not yet known. However, the condition is most common in people over the age of 50 and in those who have relatively weak immune systems. 

How Is Shingles Treated?

The majority of people who experience shingles are able to manage the symptoms at home and don’t require medical intervention. However, it is important to consult a medical professional to obtain an accurate diagnosis and tailored medical advice. 

If necessary, antiviral medication can be prescribed but this is most effective when it’s taken within three days of shingles being present. Although this won’t treat the condition directly, it can reduce the length of the illness and the severity of your symptoms and reduce the likelihood of complications occurring. 

In addition to this, patients may require prescription-strength painkillers if a shingles rash causes severe pain and discomfort. If so, medicines such as tramadol or oxycodone or nerve pain medications can be used as a short-term solution to the pain caused by the condition. 

How to Manage Shingles Symptoms

Fortunately, most patients can manage the symptoms of shingles at home, using over-the-counter medication if it’s required. Paracetamol and ibuprofen can be used to alleviate pain and reduce a fever, for example. Additionally, keeping open blisters dressed and preventing secondary infections can help to ensure a swift recovery without further complications.

When you have shingles, you may feel tired and fatigued, so getting plenty of rest is an important element of your recovery. Similarly, optimising your environment can help to reduce some of the discomfort associated with shingles. Keeping your home cool can prevent the affected areas from becoming further inflamed, for example, and wearing loose-fitting clothing will ensure that blisters aren’t exacerbated. 

Is Shingles Serious?

Although shingles can cause a significant amount of pain and discomfort, it isn’t usually a serious condition. In most instances, patients make a full recovery within 2-4 weeks and don’t require any inpatient treatment. However, people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus (or to any illness) can become more unwell. This can include people who are elderly, pregnant and/or immunocompromised. If you fall into this category, be sure to seek medical advice and assistance as soon as you notice the symptoms of shingles developing. 

Can Shingles Cause Complications?

In rare cases, shingles can cause long-term complications, including:

  • Vision problems if the rash develops near to the eyes
  • Skin infections if blisters are not well-managed
  • Postherpetic neuralgia due to damage to nerve fibres
  • Neurological issues due to nerve inflammation

When to Seek Medical Help for Shingles

If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, a medical examination will enable a doctor to diagnose or rule out shingles as the cause. It’s particularly important to seek medical help swiftly if you have an increased risk of developing complications (including if you’re over the age of 60, have underlying health conditions or weakened immunity) or if the symptoms of shingles affect the area around your eyes. 

Of course, if the symptoms of shingles worsen over time, you’re struggling to manage the condition at home or you’re unsure whether further treatment is required, it’s always advisable to seek medical help. For most people, however, a shingles infection will resolve relatively quickly within a matter of weeks. 

Share this page with someone

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply