HEALTH: What is Shingles?

“The Things We Should Talk About” is an ongoing series of health information bulletins from Voluntary Action Calderdale and Public Health and this week they are looking at Shingles.

What is Shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is an infection of a nerve and the skin around it. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.

To have shingles you must have had chickenpox in the past. Shingles is infectious but rather than causing shingles, it causes chickenpox in someone who has not had chickenpox before or whose immune system is suppressed.

It’s estimated around one in four people will have at least one episode of shingles during their life.

What causes shingles?

Following a chickenpox infection, the varicella-zoster virus remains in a dormant state in your nervous system. The immune system keeps the virus under control, but if this is weakened the virus can become active again, leading to shingles. This is more common if:

  • you are elderly.
  • you are under stress.
  • you have an illness that weakens the immune system, such as leukaemia, a lymphoma (for example, Hodgkin’s disease), or HIV.
  • you are taking treatments that suppress the immune system, chemotherapy, high dose steroids, and drugs taken to prevent organ rejection.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Severe pain is the first and predominant symptom and sometimes there is also a tingling or burning sensation. You may also feel ill, have a fever and a headache. A rash usually appears a day or two after these symptoms. The shingles rash follows a nerve path anywhere on one side of the body e.g. half way around the torso or the face.

The rash presents as vesicles (fluid filled spots). New blisters may appear for up to a week, but a few days after appearing they become yellowish in colour, flatten and dry out. The fluid contains the virus, therefore as long as the rash is wet, the infection can be passed on through contact with the fluid.

Are there any serious complications of shingles?

There are three main serious complications of shingles:

  • severe pain lasting for some months after the infection (postherpetic neuralgia)
  • damaged sight if the rash affects the nerves around the eye (ophthalmic shingles)
  • Hearing and balance problems (Ramsay Hunt syndrome)
  • These complications are not common. Shingles usually resolves after a few weeks without any lasting effects.

Can I work with shingles?
Provided you feel well enough to work, if the rash can be covered, i.e. where it is across the body, there is no reason to be excluded from work. Just don’t touch your rash without washing your hands thoroughly before and afterwards.

Is there a vaccine for shingles?
There is a vaccine, but this is only available to your service users between 70 and 79 years of age. It is aimed at this age group as they are more likely to have those severe complications if they develop shingles. You can encourage your service users to attend for their vaccination if they haven’t already had it.

More Information

Source: British Skin Foundation

Further reading

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