Shingles is a viral disease that tends to affect older adults. Shingles is caused by the virus varicella zoster (same virus which causes chickenpox), and is characterised by a painful, itchy rash which generally appears on one side of the face or body.
If you have been infected by chickenpox virus before, the virus can continue to live in the nerve cells near your spine but remain inactive. Most adults can live the rest of their lives with the virus present in their bodies and never have any issues. However, it is estimated that for 1 in 3 adults, the virus will become active again, resulting in a case of shingles.
Vaccination is an effective way to prevent shingles.
Speak to your doctor for further information regarding prevention of shingles.
Key disease information
Shingles (also known as herpes zoster), is a disease caused by the virus varicella zoster, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox – this means that it is impossible to contract shingles if you have never contracted chickenpox or have never been exposed to the varicella zoster virus before.
After the initial infection (i.e. chickenpox), the virus lays dormant in the nervous system, but can manifest later as shingles.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of getting shingles. Shingles most commonly affects older people, however it can occur at any age, particular in those who have weakened immune systems and/or have already experienced chickenpox earlier in life.
Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes it can be spread from a person with active shingles to cause chickenpox in someone who has never had chickenpox or has not received the chickenpox vaccine. Shingles is not as contagious as chickenpox, and the risk of spreading the virus is low, so long as the rash blisters are covered up completely.
The first signs of shingles are usually pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will eventually appear - this usually happens only a few days before. Shingles soon develops as a painful rash, usually on one side of the face or body. The shingles rash develops into itchy blisters that will form scab in around 7 to 10 days, resolving within approximately 3 to 5 weeks.
Some people may experience other symptoms, including fever, headache, upset stomach or chills. Complications can occur as people increase in age.
A condition called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a complication of shingles that can develop. People who develop PHN may experience severe, debilitating pain than can remain even after the rash has resolved.
In Australia, a vaccination for shingles is provided via the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for adults when they turn 70 years of age. There is currently a catch-up program for adults aged 71-79 years of age.
Talk with your healthcare professional if you have any questions about shingles vaccination.
If you manage to see your doctor within 3 days of the onset of shingles, there are treatments your doctor may consider to help shorten the length and severity of symptoms. Pain relieving medications may be required – your doctor will advise how best to manage the symptoms of shingles.
No. While shingles most commonly affects people over older people, it can occur at any age in people who have had chickenpox. In particular, it can develop in those who have a weakened immune system. Older patients who get shingles are more likely to develop a complication called post herpetic neuralgia. This is a painful condition that can last long after the shingles rash has disappeared.
It is estimated that approximately 1 in 3 adults who contract chickenpox will develop shingles at some point in their lifetime. If you have a weakened immune system, your risk of getting shingles or having a more severe form of the disease is much higher.
Sources & Citations
1. Australian Government Department of Health. Shingles (herpes zoster). Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/shingles-herpes-zoster (accessed 08 December 2021).
2. Jayasinghe S, Sheridan S, Macartney K. Herpes zoster vaccination in Australia: what's available and who benefits? Aust Prescr 2020;43(1):2–6.
3. National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance. Herpes zoster factsheet. Available at: http://www.ncirs.org.au/sites/default/files/2018-12/zoster-vaccine-fact-sheet.pdf (accessed 08 December 2021).
4. Australian Government Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook. Zoster (herpes zoster). Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/zoster-herpes-zoster (accessed 08 December 2021).
5. National institute on aging. Shingles. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/shingles (accessed 08 December 2021).
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster) transmission. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/transmission.html (accessed 08 December 2021).
MAT-AU-2102486 Date of preparation January 2022Show All