Shingles is a common condition which is thought to be experienced by around one in four people and it is caused by the virus which also creates chickenpox – varicella-zoster. The virus causes an infection in a nerve and the surrounding skin, creating a painful area and a rash which turns into blisters.

The rash can look very similar to chickenpox but the appearance of the blisters is what makes shingles different. The blisters can continue to appear for around a week but then they will start to dry out and eventually form scabs.

The area where the rash and blisters occur will also be painful, with potentially a constant burning sensation which can be severe in some cases. The skin around the area will also be very tender to touch.

Sometimes other symptoms are experienced before the rash and pain develop. These include headache, fever, feeling unwell and tingling or itchy skin in the area where the rash later develops. Shingles will generally last 2-4 weeks and will only ever affect an area on one side of your body.

Shingles can appear in any area of the body, but it is most commonly experienced on the chest or abdomen areas generally. It is not a serious condition largely but you should see your GP to get the diagnosis confirmed and they can then treat you to help reduce the symptoms and alleviate pain.


Dealing with shingles pain

Shingles can cause moderate to severe pain so when you see your GP you will need to explain the pain level you are experiencing so that they can best decide which type of pain relief would be most appropriate.

If over the counter painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen haven’t helped to relieve your symptoms, they might be able to prescribe a stronger pain killer such as Dihydrocodeine which is an opioid medication used for short-term pain relief. It works by interacting with the brain’s pain receptors helping to reduce the feeling of pain.


Seeking medical advice

It is very rare for a shingles case to need to be referred to a hospital but if your GP has any concerns about you developing potential complications, then they will refer you. Potential complications from shingles include meningitis or encephalitis, and if you have shingles in your eyes you could develop vision problems permanently.

If shingles is remaining with you persistently and not responding to treatment, they will send you to the hospital, or if you have had it twice. They will also admit you if you have a reduced immune system or if you are pregnant.


What causes shingles?

It is caused by the same virus as chickenpox so if you have this as a child the virus can remain dormant in your system and then reactivate later in adult life as shingles. It is very rare to get the condition more than twice. It is thought it reactivates due to a weakened immunity caused by your age, stress, or other health conditions.


Can I catch shingles from someone else?

You cannot catch shingles from someone who has shingles.

You cannot catch shingles from someone with chickenpox.

However, if you have never had chickenpox, it is possible, but rare, that you can catch the chickenpox virus from being in contact with a shingles patient. If you were to touch the blisters then you could contract chickenpox from the virus.

Chickenpox has potentially dangerous implications for certain types of people, so if you do have shingles, you should stay away from pregnant women, young babies and people with weakened immune systems as they could potentially catch chickenpox from your shingles virus. Make sure you don’t share clothing, towels or other contact with materials, and stay off work, school or college until you are recovered.


What are the complications from shingles?

There are rare but potential complications from shingles – usually only experienced in the elderly or those with a reduced immunity. Postherpetic neuralgia is one complication, when the severe pain continues for months after the rash disappears. There is a potential vaccine available on the NHS to people over 70 for this reason.

It is also possible to get shingles in your eyes, which can cause problems with your vision and requires medical treatment to prevent permanent vision issues.

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