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Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It's an infection in the nerves and the areas of skin supplied by the nerves. It's more common in adults, especially older people and people with poor immune systems.

You can only get shingles (also known as herpes zoster) if you've previously had chickenpox.

You cannot catch shingles from someone with shingles or chickenpox. But you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles, if you're not immune. This is because there is live virus in the blisters of the rash.

You can get shingles more than once.

Symptoms of shingles

The first symptom of shingles is usually pain, felt in one spot or over a wider area of skin. The pain may be a tingling, itching or burning feeling. You may also have a headache, fever, and generally feel unwell.

A rash usually appears within one to three days after the pain starts, but it can take up to 10 days for the rash to appear. It shows on one area of skin on one side of your body, such as in a line around your chest or tummy. It can affect your face or scalp.

The rash starts red, then over a day or two develops into small blisters that dry off over a few days. You can see what the shingles rash looks like on DermNet.

The symptoms usually go away in two to three weeks, though for older people it can take three to four weeks. Some people have ongoing pain, called postherpetic neuralgia.

Diagnosing shingles

If you think you may have shingles see a GP within two to three days of getting a rash.

This is particularly important if the rash is near your eye, you're pregnant, or you have a poor immune system.

Self-care with shingles

Treating shingles

You can get relief from pain with simple pain medicines such as paracetamol. If the pain is very severe, you may need stronger pain relief such as codeine or tramadol. Your doctor may give you antiviral medicines such as valaciclovir or aciclovir to try and reduce the severity of your shingles. These medicines are more likely to help if you start them within three days of the rash starting, but you can start them up to seven days after you see a rash.

If you have ongoing pain, your doctor may treat it with capsaicin cream and medicines to treat nerve pain.

Preventing shingles

The Shingrix vaccine is used to protect adults against shingles. It's given as two injections, two to six months apart.

Shingrix is funded for 65-year-olds. This means you can get free vaccinations at your general practice and some pharmacies.

It is also free for people who are 18 years of age and over and who have health conditions that increase their risk of shingles. This includes people with a weakened immune system. See Eligibility criteria for immunocompromised people for more information.

If you're between 50 and 65, or 66 or older, you can get the vaccinations at your general practice and some pharmacies, but you'll have to pay for them.

You can have the vaccinations even if you've previously had shingles as they can help stop you getting shingles again.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.


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