Shingles is an unfortunately widespread skin complaint, caused by a virus from the herpes family – hence it’s other name, herpes zoster. Affecting approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK, the condition is particularly prevalent in people over 70 and can potentially result in hospitalisations.

If you have never had it before, then you may not be aware that shingles is a painful and potentially serious condition. As a result, even if you are not at risk, you should take steps to protect any vulnerable family members.

It’s also a good idea to be aware of the myths and truths about shingles, so that, if you or a loved one does develop the condition, you know exactly what to do and what to look out for.

Keen to find out more? Read on as we untangle the facts from the fiction and debunk some common myths about shingles.

Fiction: Shingles Is Contagious Like Chickenpox

You may already have heard that there is a relationship between chickenpox and shingles, but it’s important to know the exact nature of that relationship. Essentially, anyone who has ever had chickenpox can develop shingles at any point in their life.

This is because the virus that triggers chickenpox does not leave your body, but can remain undetected there for years, before suddenly reactivating and causing shingles. If this happens, then, because of the link between the viruses, you could potentially infect someone else with chickenpox if they have never had it before. Fortunately, the vast majority of people have had chickenpox but if you do know someone who has never had it, and you currently have shingles, then you should take care to stay away from them.

In other words, shingles itself is not contagious, as it is simply a reactivation of the virus – but chickenpox is, and people with shingles blisters can pass chickenpox on to others.

Fact: Shingles Has Distinctive Symptoms

If you are worried that you may have shingles, or if you simply want to be well-informed in case you develop it in the future, the good news is that the symptoms of shingles are easy to spot.

They typically consist of a belt-like rash that starts out as red blotches, and then progresses into blisters which will appear along the band of skin that is governed by the affected nerve or nerves. Over time, these blisters will dry up, scab, and heal over. You will also experience localised pain, which can be mild or more severe, and can come in different forms – either sharp and stabbing, or dull and burning. In some cases, before the main symptoms develop, you might also experience other warning signs, such as fatigue, itching or burning of the skin, and perhaps even a fever or sudden sensitivity to light.

Because it is caused by the reactivation of chickenpox in one or more nerves, your symptoms will be confined to the areas of skin that are connected to that nerve. As a result, if you have symptoms which appear similar, but are more widespread and seem unconnected to particular nerves, then you should seek a second opinion as to the cause.

Fiction: Shingles Goes Away Quickly

If you have ever heard someone talk about beating shingles in a week or so, the fact is they are probably telling a falsehood. Even in uncomplicated cases, shingles can last up to a month, and some people may struggle with symptoms for even longer – perhaps even for several months. The duration will depend on any complications which may arise, which, in turn, is related to the area of the body affected by the condition.

Around 15% of cases will occur on the forehead, and this placement of the rash can make complications more likely, because it can more easily affect the eyes and perhaps even the brain. As a result, seeking prompt treatment for shingles is vital, as medication will hopefully help to prevent any spread and the subsequent development of those potentially severe complications.

Fact: Some People Are More Susceptible Than Others

While shingles can affect anyone who has previously had chickenpox, some people are more likely to develop it than others. For example, shingles is more common in the over-70s, perhaps because their immune systems are less robust; this slight decrease in immunity can give the chickenpox virus a foothold and allow it to resurrect itself as shingles.

In addition, some people are more likely than others to be vulnerable to complications caused by shingles.

You may not realise it, but shingles can cause some potentially dangerous complications such as hearing difficulties, pneumonia, inflammation of the brain, and potentially even death. Those who are more likely to suffer such complications include older patients, and anyone who already has a compromised immune system due to conditions such as cancer or HIV.

Because of this link to a depressed immune system, if you or a loved one develop shingles at an unusually young age – for example, in your late twenties – then this could be an indication that you have an underlying condition that may need urgent care.

Fiction: You Just Have To Let It Take Its Course

Not at all; in fact, shingles is readily treatable, with the help of antiviral drugs and pain relief. As a result, this myth can be particularly pernicious.

Rather than simply allowing the virus to take hold, the truth is that you should actually seek treatment as quickly as possible, ideally within three days of developing symptoms. This will help to stop the virus from strengthening and causing more severe pain and other more serious effects, such as post herpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Delaying treatment, or believing that your body can easily fend off the virus on its own, can be dangerous, so it’s important to take advantage of the medications available and help your body get back to its former strength.

Fact: Shingles Can Come Back

Unfortunately, unlike chickenpox, shingles isn’t just a viral ‘one hit wonder’ and can return – so if anyone has ever told you that you can only have it once, they are perpetuating an unfortunate myth.

While it’s true that most people will probably suffer from shingles only a single time in their lives, it does reoccur more frequently than you might think.

Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer a reoccurrence – and, in fact, you don’t have to develop shingles at all, as there are vaccines available to keep the condition at bay. As a result, if you are over the age of 50, or if you suffer from any disease which compromises your immune system, it’s recommended that you talk to your GP about having the vaccination.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there are a number of facts about shingles which many people may not realise – not to mention several myths about the condition, some of which can actually prove to be a hindrance when it comes to treating it effectively.

Because so many of us are at risk of developing shingles at some point in our lives, it’s undeniably important to educate ourselves on the facts about the virus, so we know exactly what to do if we do start showing symptoms. Understanding more about our shingles can also help us to avoid giving vulnerable people chickenpox by mistake.

As with so many common illnesses, being informed and taking decisive action is important to minimise the symptoms and halt the progression of the virus. If you do start developing signs of shingles, you will now know just what to look out for, so you can seek appropriate medical care – and, hopefully, after a month or so, you will be back to your normal self and once again shingles-free.