What is shingles?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is caused by reactivation of the same virus that previously caused chickenpox, usually in childhood. This means that in order to develop shingles you must have had chickenpox earlier in your life.

Most of us catch chickenpox as children. This disease is rarely serious and usually clears up on its own after a week or two. However, the virus that causes chickenpox (varicella zoster) doesn’t leave your body once the disease has run its course. Instead it lies dormant in your nerve roots.

Most people never notice the virus again, but in some of us it is reactivated later in life. It is when this happens that we develop shingles.

Read more about why people develop shingles here.

Almost everyone who has grown up in Sweden has had chickenpox and is consequently at risk of developing shingles: One in four people get shingles at some point in life. Read more about who can get shingles here.

Generally there is no triggering factor to explain why shingles develops, which means it is difficult to predict who will get the disease or how seriously. However, the risk of shingles increases with age, most people who develop shingles are over the age of 50, and the older you are when you develop shingles, the more severe the symptoms tend to be. The risk of serious complications also increases with age.

Shingles is characterised by a rash with fluid-filled blisters, usually in a band or belt on one side of the body. The rash can occur anywhere on the body, but it most commonly appears somewhere on the trunk. With age, however, the risk of the virus being activated along nerves in the face or head (cranial nerves) increases.

Shingles can be very painful, as the older names “hellfire” or “belt of fire” suggest. The pain usually subsides and clears up within a month as the rash dries up, crust and heal. In some cases, however, the disease can lead to persistent nerve pain. Read more about the symptoms of shingles.

Shingles itself cannot be cured, but a doctor can prescribe medication that can halt the virus and reduce severe pain. To be effective, the treatment must start no later than 72 hours after the first appearance of the rash. Painkillers can be taken to alleviate the pain of shingles. Read more about treating pain in connection with shingles.