Shingles is a viral illness that can last anything from 1 to 4 weeks. The main symptoms are pain followed by an itchy, blistering rash. Any part of your body can be affected, including your eyes and your face, although the most common areas affected are the chest and abdomen, normally just on one side. Shingles typically starts with a headache, fever, and tiredness and you will probably feel unwell.
Approximately 90% of adults in the UK have had chicken pox, they are all at risk of developing shingles. After you have had chicken pox the virus travels up the nerve root and lies dormant (it goes to sleep for a bit). Shingles occurs, often years later, when the virus re-activates (wakes up again), and travels back up the nerve pathway. We don’t really know why it wakes up. It can occur at any age but tends to occur more often in people aged over 50 or people who have immune system conditions. It is thought about 1 in 4 of us will have shingles at least once in our lifetime, and some of us can get it more than once.
People who have not had chickenpox cannot get shingles.
You can’t catch shingles from someone with chicken pox, it is caused by your own dormant sleeping chicken pox virus reactivating or waking up.
You cannot catch shingles from each other, but you can catch chickenpox through direct contact with the shingles blisters if you haven’t had it before.
The pain accompanying shingles has been described as a constant burning, shooting or stabbing pain, it can be mild or severe. The area of affected skin is often very sensitive to touch. It is common for the pain to start a few days before you develop the rash and it can last for days, weeks or in some cases for months after the rash has gone.
Generally, most people recover from shingles but some people may go on to experience long-term nerve pain known as Post-herpetic Neuralgia (PHN), this can persist for many months, or for some people even years.
PHN is not very common in people under the age of 50. But about 1 in 4 people over 60 with shingles will have pain that lasts for more than a month.
The older you are, the more likely it is to happen.
No, there is no cure for shingles, but there is treatment available to help relieve the symptoms until it gets better. The earlier you see a doctor, the earlier treatment can start and this can help to reduce the severity of the symptoms and reduce the risk of complications developing. The seriousness of shingles will differ from person to person and can be really unpleasant for some people.
The shingles vaccination used in the UK is called ZOSTAVAX.
It contains a weakened form of the chickenpox virus that causes shingles. You cannot get shingles from the vaccine, it helps to build up your body’s immunity to the virus, so that the next time it re-activates in your body you will fight it off more easily. It can be given at any time of the year.
It will reduce your chances of developing shingles by more than a third. If you do go on to have shingles, the symptoms will be milder and will not last as long as they would have if you had not had the vaccination.
It is given as an injection into the upper arm. Lots of evidence shows that the new shingles vaccine is very safe. All medicines are tested to assess their safety and effectiveness before they are allowed to be used. Once they have been issued with a licensed for use, their safety continues to be monitored. It is already in use in several countries, including the America and Canada, and no safety concerns have been raised.
Side effects are usually quite minor and don’t last very long. Approximately 1 in 10 people get symptoms that may include headaches or flu-like symptoms. You may get some redness or tenderness where the injection was given. If your symptoms last for more than a few days or you get a rash at the site of the injection you should see your GP.
You should not have the shingles vaccine if you:
Yes, the shingles vaccine works very well in people who have had shingles before and it will boost your immunity against further shingles attacks.
However, it is recommended that you wait for one year after having a shingles attack before having the vaccination. The natural boosting that occurs following an episode of shingles makes the benefit of having the shingles vaccine immediately following recovery limited. If you have had two or more episodes of shingles in one year should see your GP and have immunological investigation prior to vaccination, your GP may need to refer you to a specialist for this.
The shingles vaccine is a live immunisation. If you require other live vaccinations such as Measles, Mumps & Rubella (MMR), Varicella (Chicken Pox) Yellow Fever or a TB vaccine (BCG) then the shingles vaccination must be given either on the same day or separated by 4 weeks. All other vaccines can be given at the same time as the shingles vaccine, it’s an ideal time to get your flu vaccine too!
No, the shingles vaccine is only licensed for use in those aged 50 years and older.
The shingles vaccine should not be given to people currently receiving oral or intravenous antiviral medications such as Acyclovir or within 48 hours after stopping this treatment. This is because the therapy may reduce the response to the vaccine.
If you need to start taking antiviral medications these should not be started within two weeks after receiving the shingles vaccine as this may also reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine.
If you are just using topical antiviral agents such as acyclovir cream you can have the shingles vaccine.
Sussex Travel Clinic – Zostavax vaccination costs £190
One dose – no booster required