Shingles: everything you need to know

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1 in 5 of us will suffer shingles, although it is commonly found in the over 50s, it stems from the chicken pox virus we may have had as a child.


It is a common condition condition which causes pain and a blistered rash on the skin, here's how to spot it and what to do if you think you have it.


What is shingles?

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same one that causes chicken pox. After you get chicken pox, the virus stays in the body and can be reactivated, years later and usually as an adult, causing shingles. It is not clear what causes the virus to become active again, but it is thought it can be triggered by stress or illness.


The reactivated virus then travels along a nerve to the skin, causing pain in the area. A rash will appear, usually along a band of skin on one side of the body. Common sites are the chest and tummy, and the eye can be a common area, too. 



An episode of shingles will usually last around 2 - 4 weeks, and in some cases there is no rash, just a band of pain.


What are the symptoms of shingles? 

The first sign of shingles is a pain in the affected area. Around 2-3 days later a rash will appear, which looks like red blotches, followed by itchy blisters.


The pain can feel like a burning or dull sensation, or you may experience sharp pains that come and go. You may also feel feverish, have a high temperature, and feel generally unwell for a few days. 


Is shingles contagious?

If you have shingles you are contagious to anyone who has not had chicken pox, but it's impossible to catch shingles from someone who has chicken pox. You can't catch shingles from someone with shingles.


What should I do if I think I have shingles?

If you think you may have shingles, visit your GP for a diagnosis. Although not usually serious there can be complications from shingles.


How to treat it

Your GP may prescribe anti-viral medicines to reduce the severity of shingles, and pain-killing medicine such as paracetamol.

Wearing loose-fitting clothing can help, and cooling the skin with ice can help, as can emollient creams that soothe itching. Calamine lotion and antihistamines can be effective too. Do read all labels before taking any medication and ask your pharmacist for help.


Recurring shingles 

This is actually quite rare, but it does happen. We spoke to Marian Nicholson from the Shingles Support Society and Herpes Viruses Association to find the best way to treat recurring shingles.



'If you're getting recurring shingles, try to get more sleep and eat better. It seems to be generally accepted now that we are getting one hour less sleep per day than we really need - and it's utterly essential to get enough sleep.

Eating well

'Make sure you eat well - you could add vitamins and minerals to your diet if you like, but if you're eating a good diet then you don't need to. I've done a bit of research and Holland and Barretts' Super One vitamins seem sensible to me - it has a wide range of vitamins and minerals and an appropriate dosage.

Visit the doctor

'If recurring shingles is making your life miserable, go to your doctor and ask if you can have antiviral pills ready for your next outbreak. That way you can start taking them at the slightest sign of an outbreak. It's no good noticing the symptoms one day, going to the doctor's the next day and then going to the chemist later that day. You won't get the pills until 36 hours after the onset and then it's too late.

Treat the blisters

'Shingles blisters can be very painful, but there's an ointment called lidocaine 5% BP that can help. You can buy it over the counter at the chemist for around £2 and you can apply it to any sore place. Chemists often think lidocaine is only available on prescription, but it's not - so ask them to look it up. If they don't stock it, send an email to to find out how to get it.

Don't stress

'Shingles outbreaks won't damage you in any way, they're just a nuisance!'

Visit the Shingles Support Society for more shingles advice.

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