What is shingles?

Shingles is also called herpes zoster. It is a disease caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox  virus. It causes a painful blistering rash.

Shingles is a serious disease because it can cause severe nerve pain that can last for months. It can also lead to:

  • serious eye problems, including blindness
  • pneumonia
  • hearing problems
  • swelling of the brain
  • death.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella).

The first time you catch the virus, you get chickenpox. The virus stays in your body and can reactivate later in life. When it reactivates, it is called shingles.

Some people might have had very mild chickenpox, and they might not even remember having it. These people can still develop shingles later in life.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles symptoms include:

  • a tingling, burning sensation in the area. This is where a painful blistering rash will appear
  • headache
  • tiredness
  • discomfort when looking at bright lights.

Symptoms can occur for several days before the rash appears. The rash can last about 10 to 15 days. It often makes a stripe or belt-like pattern on one side of the face or body. The rash forms small blisters, which fill with liquid and burst before the skin crusts over and heals.

Sometimes the rash can become infected.

Sometimes the pain is still there even after the rash goes away. If the pain lasts for more than three months, it is called post-herpetic neuralgia.

Who is at risk from shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of getting shingles later in life. About one in three people who have not been immunised against chickenpox or shingles will get shingles in their lifetime.

Shingles usually affects older people. The older you are if you get shingles, the higher your risk of getting serious disease. People who have a weakened immune system are also at risk of getting more severe disease, even if they are young. 

How do you get shingles?

Shingles usually occurs from inside your own body when the chickenpox virus reactivates. If you have not had chickenpox, you can’t get shingles.

If you have not had chickenpox, you can be infected with chickenpox from someone who has shingles. This happens if you come in contact with the fluid from shingles blisters.

How do you prevent shingles?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against shingles in most people. The shingles vaccine (Zostavax) should not be given to people who are immunocompromised.

For more information on shingles immunisation, see Shingles immunisation service.

Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox. The risk of spreading the disease is low if the rash is covered. When the rash has developed crusts, you are no longer infectious.

If you have shingles, you should:

  • cover the rash (if possible)
  • avoid touching or scratching the rash
  • wash your hands often to prevent the virus from spreading.

Avoid contact with these people until the rash has developed crusts:

  • pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
  • premature or low birthweight babies
  • children who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
  • people with weakened immune systems, such as people who:
    • have had chemotherapy
    • are taking other medicines that weaken their immune system
    • have had a transplant
    • are living with HIV.

How do you know if you have shingles?

If you think you or one of your family members has shingles, see your doctor as soon as possible for treatment.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do an examination. If your doctor thinks you have shingles, they can test some of the fluid from the blisters to see if it has the virus.

How do you get treated for shingles?

If shingles is diagnosed early enough (within three days of the rash appearing), it can be treated with antiviral medicines.

People with long-lasting nerve pain can take medicines that help relieve the pain.

Bacterial infection of the rash may need to be treated with antibiotics.

More information

Contacts

If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
4 June 2018