What is shingles?
Shingles is a painful rash that usually only appears on a relatively small area of your skin.
Affecting one in five Australians during their lifetime, it can only be contracted by people who have had chickenpox in the past. It is extremely rare to get more than one case of shingles during your life.
Shingles is also called herpes zoster, and is caused by the varicella zoster virus. Essentially, it’s a reactivation of the chicken pox virus, which can lay dormant in your body for a long time. So, if you’ve had chicken pox in the past, you may develop shingles later in life.
Shingles is rare in children younger than 12; and most cases occur in people older than 40.
The skin rash that shingles causes can be quite painful. Fortunately, anti-viral medication can help ease the pain and shorten the duration of the virus. You should start the medication as quickly as possible to get the best effect from it – so as soon as you suspect that you might have shingles, see a doctor.
The dormant chicken pox virus that causes shingles can easily be spread through direct contact with the skin rash of infected people. This means that if you have never had chickenpox, and come into contact with a person who has shingles (or any of the dressings, sheets or clothes used to treat that person), you may develop chickenpox. It’s wise to stay well clear of anyone with shingles if you haven’t had chickenpox yourself. Likewise, if you have shingles, stay away from those who have not had chickenpox, especially if they are also pregnant.
There is now a safe and effective chickenpox vaccination in Australia, and some evidence suggests that there could be a reduced incidence of shingles amongst those who have had the vaccine.
Symptoms of shingles
Shingles is characterised by a painful rash on a small area of skin. At the outset, a patch of your skin may feel tender, sore or itchy, but you may not develop the typical blistering rash for several days. This signals the beginning of an attack.
Then, the skin turns red and breaks into tiny, fluid-filled blisters. The rash can last days or weeks; and a scaly crust may appear.
The rash follows the course of a nerve and most commonly appears as a belt or band on your chest or stomach. Sometimes it will affect other areas, including the face.
Causes and treatment of shingles
Shingles usually only occurs when a person has a suppressed immune system, is rundown or physically unwell. You will only get shingles if you have had the chickenpox in the past. Essentially, the dormant chicken pox virus breaks out and causes a blistering rash to run along the course of a nerve running under the skin.
As soon as you suspect that you may have shingles, see your doctor. The sooner you can start anti-viral medication, the more effective that medication will be in shortening the time that you have the rash. Ideally, you would start medication within 24 hours of the rash appearing; at the most, 72 hours.
Pain killers and topical ointments may also be used to ease the pain.
In some cases, the pain doesn’t go away once the rash has cleared. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia – and this, unfortunately, can last for months or years. In these cases, pain relief may be needed.
Further information and sources
This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have the symptoms of a shingles.