Shingles - Complications 

Complications of shingles 

Complications can sometimes occur as a result of shingles. They are more likely if you have a weakened immune system (the body's natural defence system) or are elderly.

Some of the main complications associated with shingles are described below.

Postherpetic neuralgia

Postherpetic neuralgia is the most common complication of shingles. It's not clear exactly how many people are affected, but some estimates suggest that as many as one in five people over 50 could develop postherpetic neuralgia as the result of shingles.

Postherpetic neuralgia can cause severe nerve pain (neuralgia) and intense itching that persists after the rash and any other symptoms of shingles have gone.

Types of pain experienced by people with postherpetic neuralgia include:

  • constant or intermittent burning, aching, throbbing, stabbing, or shooting pain
  • allodynia – where you feel pain from something that should not be painful, such as changes in temperature or the wind
  • hyperalgesia – where you are very sensitive to pain

Postherpetic neuralgia sometimes resolves after around three to six months, although it can last for years and some cases can be permanent. It can be treated with a number of different painkilling medicines.

Read more about treating postherpetic neuralgia.

Eye problems

If one of your eyes is affected by shingles (ophthalmic shingles), there is a risk you could develop further problems in the affected eye, such as:

  • ulceration (sores) and permanent scarring of the surface of your eye (cornea)
  • inflammation of the eye and optic nerve (the nerve that transmits signals from the eye to the brain)
  • glaucoma – where pressure builds up inside the eye

If not treated promptly, there is a risk that ophthalmic shingles could cause a degree of permanent vision loss.

Ramsay Hunt syndrome

Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a complication that can occur if shingles affects certain nerves in your head.

In the US, Ramsay Hunt syndrome is estimated to affect 5 in 100,000 people every year and it may affect a similar number of people in the UK.

Ramsay Hunt syndrome can cause:

  • earache 
  • hearing loss 
  • dizziness
  • vertigo (the sensation that you or the environment around you is moving or spinning)
  • tinnitus (hearing sounds coming from inside your body, rather than an outside source) 
  • a rash around the ear
  • loss of taste
  • paralysis (weakness) of your face, known as Bell's palsy

Ramsay Hunt syndrome is usually treated with antiviral medication and corticosteroids.

The earlier treatment is started, the better the outcome. Around three-quarters of people given antiviral medication within 72 hours of the start of their symptoms usually make a complete recovery.

If treatment is delayed, only about half of those treated will recover completely.

Those who don't make a full recovery may be left with permanent problems, such as a degree of permanent facial paralysis or hearing loss.

Other complications

A number of other possible problems can also sometimes develop as a result of shingles, including:

  • the rash becoming infected with bacteria – see your GP if you develop a high temperature, as this could be a sign of a bacterial infection
  • white patches (a loss of pigment) or scarring in the area of the rash
  • inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia), liver(hepatitis), brain (encephalitis), spinal cord (transverse myelitis), or protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)  these complications are rare, however 

Shingles is rarely life threatening, but complications such as those mentioned above mean that around 1 in every 1,000 cases in adults over the age of 70 is fatal.

Page last reviewed: 25/06/2014

Next review due: 25/06/2016

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Sugar daddy said on 27 September 2013

I was diagnosed with Ramsey Hunt syndrome nearly 2 years ago and I am still suffering side-effects with balance on occasions. I also had to have two hearing aids fitted because of hearing loss

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vintage said on 05 February 2012

Hi Ii all started over a week ago.with areally low back ache my husband was in hospital so i was running around like a headless chicken thought i was just tired.Then had terrible cramp pains in my stomache ,id been feeling hot and felt i was walking through treacle. then felt tearful thought just tired,but then 2 sores appeared under my rib cage and on my back where like 3 lumps odd i though so i googled oh forgot to say i was numb for a couple of days on my tummy just though a bit odd, to busy to really care. went to docs he gave me 400g of the antiviral drug, it was then 2 dys later and i was in agong felt id been kicked by a horse,so pain ful the skin to touch and my ribs and back omg so ive now got 800 strengh of the anti viral but its now sunday and 5 days in to this im really tearful, but the pain is terrible ive had a hysterectomy 2 children but this is Horrid i dont know what to do for the pain.im worried about work and when i will be feeling better can anyone give me some advice Pleeaasseee xx

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SCARFACE48 said on 23 March 2010

I had shingles years ago that effected my right optic nerve and was told by my mother by the family doctor if it had effected the left optic side i could have gone blind. I was only 9years old at the time and remember the severe pain at the time.i had spots on my forehead and above my eye and in my hair and of course on the right side of my face. I missed about 3 months schooling. To this day i have the pure white scarring by my hairline as i was in such a bad way. To this day i still get the discomfort especially when i feel tired or run down.
I remember the doctor prescribing phenobarbitone, i was on these for years and never questioned my mother how long i needed to be on these and weaned myself off them as i got older. This type of condition together with tn and suicide was discussed on gmtv./this morning where a woman had been suffering extreme pain and had an operation to ease her symptoms which was very informative and intresting as doctor chris mentioned the pain shingles can leave . Just thiught i would share my experience with you

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