What causes it? Shingles is caused by the herpes virus, varicella-zoster. This is the same virus which causes chickenpox. An attack of shingles is caused by the reactivation of virus which has remained dormant in a nerve cell since an earlier episode of chickenpox (varicella).

You cannot catch shingles from another person with shingles, but you could get chickenpox if you are not already immune to it. Shingles is most common in people with weakened immune defences, so it is more common in the elderly or in people suffering from chronic conditions such as leukaemia or AIDS. It does however appear from time to time in normal, healthy individuals when their immune system is at a low ebb.

How does it start? It often starts with a burning pain and no rash. The rash when it develops about 24 hours later, shows as a reddening of the skin in which bubbles, or blisters develop. The blisters often lie in a typical distribution over an area of skin which is supplied by a nerve. Typically it will be on the chest, but could appear in other places. Generally, it does not cross the midline.

After a few days the blisters burst and crust over in a similar fashion to the blisters of chickenpox.

Is it treatable? Anti-viral agents are available for the treatment of shingles, but they only help if started very early after the development of the blisters (within 48hrs). Generally treatment is reserved for severe attacks, the elderly, or for people with chronic illness. Usually it is a self-limiting illness - that means it will get better on its own and complications in young, healthy individuals are rare.

What can I do to help the discomfort?

  • Simple pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Calamine lotion
What are the complications? Some people develop a condition called post herpetic neuralgia. This causes chronic pain in the affected nerve root and can be difficult to treat and is quite debilitating. It usually only happens in the elderly. Some of the spots might become secondarily infected with bacteria. This can be treated with antibiotics.

Shingles which affects the eye can be serious and would need treating with antiviral agents. If you get any spots on your face near your eyes, particularly on the side of your nose, you should seek medical advice.

Further information

This article published on
26 January 2006

Next review date 1/1/2013


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