Introduction 

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection of a nerve and the skin around it. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox.

Shingles usually affects a specific area on one side of the body and does not cross over the midline of the body (an imaginary line running from between your eyes down past the belly button).

The main symptom is a painful rash that develops into itchy blisters that contain particles of the virus.

An episode of shingles typically lasts around two to four weeks, although around one in five people go on to develop nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia in the affected area of skin.

Read more about the symptoms of shingles.

When to seek medical advice

Shingles is not usually serious, but you should see your GP as soon as possible if you recognise the symptoms. Early treatment may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and the risk of developing complications.

You should also see your GP if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system (the body's natural defence system) and you think you have been exposed to someone with chickenpox or shingles and haven't had chickenpox before.

Your GP will usually be able to diagnose shingles based on your symptoms and the appearance of the rash.

Read more about diagnosing shingles.

What causes shingles?

Most people have chickenpox in childhood, but after the illness has gone, the virus remains dormant (inactive) in the nervous system. The immune system keeps the virus in check, but later in life it can be reactivated and cause shingles.

It is not known exactly why the shingles virus is reactivated at a later stage in life, but most cases are thought to be caused by having lowered immunity (protection against infections and diseases).

This may be the result of:

  • being older
  • being stressed
  • taking medication that weakens your immune system
  • a condition that affects your immune system, such as HIV or AIDS

It is not possible to catch shingles from someone with the condition or from someone with chickenpox, but you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if you have not had it before.

It is possible to have shingles more than once, but it's very rare to get it more than twice.

Read more about the causes of shingles.

Who is affected?

Around 9 in every 10 adults in the UK have had chickenpox previously and are potentially at risk of developing shingles.

Shingles can occur at any age, but is most common in people who are over the age of 70. It is much less common in children.

It's estimated that around one in every four people will have at least one episode of shingles during their life.

How shingles is treated

There is no cure for shingles, but treatment is available to relieve the symptoms until the condition resolves. Most cases of shingles last around two to four weeks.

Treatment for shingles can include:

  • covering the rash with clothing or a non-adherent (non-stick) dressing to reduce the risk of other people becoming infected with chickenpox, as it is very difficult to pass the virus on to someone else if the rash is covered
  • painkilling medication, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or codeine
  • antiviral medication to stop the virus multiplying, although not everyone will need this

Read more about treating shingles.

Complications

Shingles can sometimes lead to complications, such as postherpetic neuralgia. This is where severe nerve pain lasts for several months or more after the rash has gone.

Complications such as this are usually in elderly people who have had the condition and those with a weakened immune system.

Read more about the complications of shingles.

Can shingles be prevented?

It's not always possible to prevent shingles, but a vaccine called Zostavax can reduce your chances of developing the condition.

If you still develop shingles after having this vaccine, the condition may be milder and last for a shorter time than usual.

This vaccine is now routinely offered to older people on the NHS. It is given as a single injection to anyone aged 70. There is also a catch-up programme for those aged 79 and, from September 2014, 78 and 79-year-olds. You will only need to have this vaccine once.

If you wish to have the shingles vaccine and you are not eligible for the NHS vaccination programme, you will usually need to visit a private clinic. Private vaccination is likely to cost £100-200.

Read more about the shingles vaccination.

Is shingles contagious?

You can’t give shingles to someone else, and you can’t catch shingles from someone with shingles.

However, shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus and you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles, but only if you’ve never had chickenpox before.

Shingles develops when the virus from a chickenpox infection earlier in life, which has lain dormant (inactive) in nerve cells, suddenly reactivates.

The blisters that form contain live virus and if a person who has never had chickenpox makes contact with an open blister, they can contract the virus and develop chickenpox.

Page last reviewed: 25/06/2014

Next review due: 25/06/2016