Shingles is a painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox.
The shingles rash develops into itchy blisters, 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.
Almost everyone has had chickenpox by the time they turn 40 (unless they have been previously vaccinated against it).
If you have had chickenpox in the past, the chickenpox virus stays in the nerve cells near your spine but will not be active. Shingles occurs when the virus becomes active again.
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.
Shingles, however, frequently occurs with no known trigger, although you cannot catch shingles from someone who has the condition. Shingles 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.
Antiviral medication can help reduce the impact of shingles if given within 3in the first three days from the start of the rash appearing. Over-the-counter medications, 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. These could include opioids, anti-depressants or anticonvulsants, which may help control nerve pain.
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).
Last reviewed: July 2017