Skip to main content
Disease

Shingles

Page last updated on 12 December 2018

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

What is shingles?

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. 

Who is at risk of contracting shingles?

Shingles most commonly affects people over the age of 50 years, however it can occur at any age, particular in those who have weakened immune systems and/or have already experienced chickenpox earlier in life.   

Is shingles contagious?

Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes it (varicella zoster), can be spread from a person with active shingles to cause chickenpox in someone who has not had chickenpox (or been exposed to the virus) before. Shingles is not as contagious as chickenpox, and the risk of spreading the virus is low, so long as the rash is covered up completely. 

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The first signs of shingles is 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 2 to 4 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.
 

How can shingles be prevented?

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.

How do you treat shingles?

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.

Do only adults get shingles?

No. While shingles most commonly affects people over the age of 50 years, it can occur at any age. In particular, it can develop in those who have a weakened immune system and/or those who contracted chickenpox in the first year of life. 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 is up to 15 times higher than that of the general population. 

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

Find a doctor near you

Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government, Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Australian Government, Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. Zoster (herpes zoster). Available at: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook10-home~handbook10part4~handbook10-4-24 (accessed 16 April 2018).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster) signs and symptoms. Available at:   https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/symptoms.html (accessed 16 April 2018).
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster) transmission. Available at:   https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/transmission.html (accessed 18 April 2018).
  4. Health Direct. Shingles. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/shingles (accessed 27 April 2018).
  5. National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System. Number of notifications of all diseases received from State and Territory health authorities, 2017. Available at: http://www9.health.gov.au/cda/source/rpt_2.cfm (accessed 27 April 2018).
  6. Australian Government, Department of Health. National Immunisation Program Schedule. Available at: https://beta.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/immunisation-throughout-life/national-immunisation-program-schedule (accessed 12 June 2018).

SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0180 - Date of preparation May 2018

Related