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What are shingles and how do I treat it?

Shingles usually appear on the left or right side of the torso (Getty Images)
Shingles usually appear on the left or right side of the torso (Getty Images)

Shingles can be a very painful experience that affects around one in four adults in their lifetime.

The infection, also known as herpes zoster, is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which also causes chickenpox.

The virus is extremely common, with more than 90 per cent of the world’s population having it. It is usually contracted when people get chickenpox as children, but the virus does not go away, instead laying dormant in the body’s nervous system for years.

For about a third of people who get the virus, it will reactivate some years later and cause shingles.

Here is everything you need to know about the symptoms of shingles and how to treat it:

What are the symptoms?

A person who gets shingles will experience a painful rash that can occur anywhere on the body.

Early signs of shingles could be a tingling or painful feeling in an area of skin and a headache or feeling generally unwell.

According to the NHS, the rash usually looks like “a single stripe of blisters that wraps around the left side or right side of your torso”. They appear as blotches on the skin that become itchy blisters, which can break and ooze fluid. The rash can be red, but this can be harder to see on brown or black skin.

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The rash can also appear on your face, eyes and genitals. If it appears around your eyes, it can affect your sight or hearing and make it hard to move one side of your face. According to the Mayo Clinic, if left untreated, the infection can lead to permanent eye damage.

After a few days, the blisters will dry out and become scabs. If a rash appears on both the left and right side of the body, it is unlikely to be shingles.

How is it treated?

Shingles can take up to four weeks to heal, but can have more severe consequences in older people above the age of 50.

If the symptoms are not serious, patients can take paracetamol to ease the pain and use a cool compress on the rash several times a day to soothe it.

It is also recommended that you keep the area with the rash clean and dry to reduce the risk of infection and wear loose-fitting clothing.

But there are some situations in which it is recommended you contact your GP or call 111. Due to the heightened risk in older people, you should seek help if you are 50 or older.

People with a weakened immune system should also contact the health service, as well as those who have a rash that is widespread and painful, or has appeared near an eye.

Are shingles contagious?

Shingles are not contagious and you cannot spread them. However, if you come into contact with someone who has not had chickenpox and has not been vaccinated against chickenpox, they could catch chickenpox from you.

 (NHS)
(NHS)

The NHS recommends you avoid being around pregnant people who have not had chickenpox before, people with a weakened immune system, and babies that are less than a month old.

Is there a vaccine against shingles?

Yes, but it is only available on the NHS to people in their 70s. Shingles can be fatal for around one in 1,000 over-70s who develop it.

The vaccine injection only needs to be given once. However, some people who cannot have the routine vaccine for health reasons will need two doses.

Getting the vaccine will reduce your risk of getting shingles, and if you do get it, your symptoms may be milder and the illness shorter.

If you already had shingles, you can still get the vaccine to protect yourself against developing it again. You may have to wait up to one year after you have recovered from the illness before you can get the vaccine.