Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful blistering rash. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. You can only get shingles if you have had chickenpox in the past.
The shingles rash develops into painful blisters that may also be itchy, usually on one side of the body, either on the face, chest, back, abdomen or pelvis. They can take several weeks to settle.
Shingles can occur at any age, but it usually affects older adults. About 1 in 3 people will develop shingles at some stage during their lifetime.
In 1 in 10 people, the pain and tingling of shingles can last for months or even years. This is due to nerve involvement and is called post-herpetic neuralgia.
Who can get shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox in the past can develop shingles. The chickenpox virus stays in the nerve cells near your spine but will not be active. Shingles occurs when the virus becomes active again.
Shingles often occurs with no known trigger. It is more likely to occur if you:
- are 60 years of age or older
- are experiencing physical and emotional stress
- have HIV and AIDS
- have had an organ transplant
- have recently had a bone-marrow transplant
- have a condition which requires treatment that impacts the immune system, such as chemotherapy for cancer
Usually, people only get shingles once in their lives. But if you have a weakened immune system you might get repeated infections.
You cannot catch shingles from someone who has the condition. But if you have not had chickenpox, you can catch chickenpox by coming into direct contact with fluid on the blisters of someone who has shingles.
How is shingles diagnosed and treated?
If you think you may have shingles, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible. That’s because antiviral medicine given in the first 3 days from the start of the rash appearing will reduce the severity of the attack and the risk of ongoing pain (post-herpetic neuralgia).
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do an examination. They can test some of the fluid from the blisters to confirm it is shingles.
Over-the-counter medicines, such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, can be used for pain relief. If over-the-counter medicines do not control your pain, your doctor may prescribe other medicines.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about shingles, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
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Last reviewed: March 2019