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Shingles is a skin rash characterised by pain and blistering. Shingles is also known as ‘herpes zoster’. Shingles can affect any part of the body, including the face. Shingles occurs because of a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, which remains in the nerve cells of the body after an attack of chickenpox. The rash is made up of tiny blister-like spots that hold fluid.

Shingles can be spread when a person comes into contact with fluid contained in the blisters (however the person would ‘catch’ chickenpox, not shingles). Anti-viral medications work best if administered within three days, and preferably 24 hours, of the onset of a rash.

Shingles is a ‘reactivated’ chickenpox virus
Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles. However, only people who have never had chickenpox can catch the virus from another person with shingles. A person who has never had chickenpox, but comes into contact with the shingles virus, will develop chickenpox (not shingles).

The virus responsible for shingles can be spread by direct contact with the lesions, or by touching any dressings, sheets or clothes soiled with discharge from the spots. Anti-viral medications work best if administered within 24 hours of the onset of a shingles rash.

The virus travels down nerves
The rash caused by shingles usually takes the shape of a ‘belt’ or band around the body. The rash forms its characteristic pattern because the virus works down the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord and encircle the body. The chest and stomach are most commonly affected.

Tender, painful skin signals the beginning of an attack. The skin then turns red and breaks out in blisters. The rash can last for a few days or weeks. During that time, a scaly crust might appear. Once the attack is over the skin usually returns to normal, but there can be some scarring in severe cases.

The link to chickenpox
Shingles is caused by the Varicella zoster virus, which is also responsible for chickenpox. People who contract chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles later in life, since the virus lies dormant in the body. Fortunately, it is rare to have more than one attack of shingles.

Shingles, chickenpox and pregnancy
An attack of shingles during pregnancy will not harm the unborn baby. The mother is already carrying the Varicella zoster virus before developing shingles, and there is no increase in the risk of passing it on to the foetus if shingles develops. However an attack of chickenpox during pregnancy can be serious and requires urgent medical attention.

Post-herpetic neuralgia
Sometimes the pain doesn’t go away once the shingles rash has cleared. This complication is called post-herpetic neuralgia and is more common when the shingles rash appeared on the face rather than the body. This type of shingles rash tends to affect the skin around the eye, and occasionally the eye itself.

Type of help available
Anti-viral medications can help ease the pain and shorten an attack of shingles. The medication works best if administered within three days, and ideally within 24 hours, of the onset of a rash. Analgesic medication may also ease post-herpetic neuralgia, but consult your doctor first.

Shingles and chickenpox vaccination
While there is a vaccination available to protect people from chickenpox, there is no vaccine currently licenced in Australia to protect people against shingles. Work is progressing to develop a vaccine to prevent shingles and it is expected that one will be available in Australia within the next few years.

Things to remember

  • Shingles is a skin rash characterised by pain and blistering.
  • The virus responsible for shingles can be spread when a person comes into contact with the fluid contained in the blisters, either directly or indirectly.
  • Shingles is caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox.
  • Treatment is most effective within three days of the rash appearing.
Where to get help
  • Your doctor
  • Nurse on Call Tel. 1300 606 024 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)

    Related articles:

Chickenpox vaccine.
Infections - bacterial and viral.

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Article publication date: 01/02/2000
Last reviewed: 31/10/2007

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