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Shingles: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment

What causes shingles?

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus that's also responsible for causing chickenpox.

Shingles usually causes a rash or blisters on the skin.

Only people who've had chickenpox can develop shingles.

The virus 'hides' inactive in nerve cells, but can be triggered later in life to cause shingles.

Some people in their 70s are now offered a vaccination on the NHS to protect against shingles.

What does shingles look like?

Shingles usually causes a rash or blisters on the skin - like the ones shown here.

Small blisters at the onset of shingles oubreak

Who gets shingles?

It isn’t yet known why the virus is reactivated in some people but not others.

However, risk factors include:

  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Being over 50
  • Having other illnesses
  • Suffering trauma
  • Being stressed

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Symptoms of shingles include:

  • Pain or bruised feeling - usually on one side of your face or body - often along with a fever, chills, headache or upset stomach. People will often feel unwell for several days before the rash appears.
  • Tingling, itching or prickling skin, and an inflamed, red skin rash several days later.
  • A group or long strip of small, fluid-filled blisters.
  • Deep burning, searing, aching or stabbing pain, which may occur once in a while or last a long time.
  • A complication of shingles for at least 1 in 10 people with the condition is post-herpetic neuralgia. This severe nerve pain lasts for more than 3 months after the rash has cleared up.

Shingles triggers

Doctors don’t know why the shingles virus gets activated. As well as lowered immunity, becoming older increases the risk and suffering from stress may trigger a shingles outbreak.

How is shingles diagnosed?

Shingles is diagnosed based on the symptoms, an examination of any rash or blisters and the person's medical history.

Shingles blisters tend to appear in a band on one side of the body.

A swab from the blister or skin scraping may be sent for laboratory tests.

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