The most common symptoms of shingles are a painful rash and blistering. Shingles (herpes zoster infection) is triggered by reactivation of the chickenpox virus (varicella). The risk increases as you get older, as your immune system weakens with age. The NHS estimates that 25% of the population will get the condition at least once during their life.
An attack usually lasts two to four weeks and involves a specific area on one side of the body, typically the stomach or chest, although any area can be affected, including the eyes and other parts of the face.
According to the NHS, shingles isn’t generally serious, but it recommends you should see your doctor as soon as you experience potential symptoms. Shingles can sometimes lead to complications – particularly in older people – such as severe nerve pain for months after the rash has disappeared.
Pain from Shingles
The first symptom of shingles most people notice is a burning or prickly pain on one side of their body, which may affect the:
The pain caused can vary from mild to severe. It may take the form of a constant, dull ache, or sharp stabbing pains from time to time.
Rashes and Blisters
Reddened skin and a rash will appear within a few days in the area where you had the initial pain. The shingles virus moves along nerve pathways, so the skin eruption usually forms a striation across one side of the body.
The rash will develop into itchy blisters, similar in appearance to chickenpox. New blisters may continue to appear for up to a week. After a few days, they become yellowish and dry out to form scabs, which can leave slight scarring.
Other common symptoms are:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Generally feeling unwell
- Skin irritation such as a tingling or burning sensation
Symptoms of Ophthalmic Shingles
In some cases, the condition can affect one of your eyes. This is known as ophthalmic shingles, which occurs when the blistering rash develops on the eyelids. Apart from the rash, other symptoms of ophthalmic shingles include:
- Throbbing or burning pain in your eye
- Redness in and around the eye
- Watering eye
- Blurred vision
- Over-sensitivity to light
You may also experience swelling in the:
- Retina – The light-sensitive layer in the back of your eye
- Cornea – The clear layer at the front of the eye
If you suspect you may have ophthalmic shingles, consult your GP, who can refer you to an eye doctor. The sooner you get treatment for ophthalmic shingles, the less risk of long-term complications.
How do you get Shingles?
You can only get shingles if you’ve had chickenpox. Most children get chickenpox, after which the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in the nervous system – in nerves linked to either the spinal cord or nerves in the neck or head – held in check by the immune system.
It’s not clear exactly what reactivates the chickenpox virus to cause shingles at a later stage in life. However, most cases are believed to result from impaired ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, which typically happens with ageing.
Besides getting older, other factors can put you at increased risk. You may need to be particularly vigilant in watching for symptoms if your immune system is compromised by:
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- A recent organ transplant
- Steroid drugs
According to the British Association of Dermatologists and the British Skin Foundation, most outbreaks of shingles happen for no obvious reason and clear up on their own within a few weeks.
Although there is currently no cure for shingles, antiviral medicines can ease the symptoms and get rid of the rash sooner, while the soothing properties of Calamine Lotion can relieve itching. If you’re aged 70 to 78, you can get a free shingles vaccination of Zostavax.
Why you need to see a Doctor
If you begin to experience one or more of the common symptoms of shingles, you should see your GP as soon as possible, particularly if you’re 60 or older – ageing significantly increases the danger of complications from shingles – or the problem is affecting your face or eye.
The faster shingles is diagnosed and treated, the less discomfort you’ll suffer as the severity of the condition is alleviated and the risk of complications such as nerve damage is reduced.
Shingles itself is not contagious but it can trigger chickenpox in someone who has never had chickenpox. The condition is infectious from the time blisters appear until they crust over. If you’re diagnosed with shingles, your doctor can advise you on how to avoid giving chickenpox to other people.
You can find more information about shingles in in our in-depth guide.
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 22nd November 2021 to reflect current information.