A middle aged man going for a jog through a park.

Shingles causes a painful rash and can lead to severe, long-term nerve pain. As your immune system weakens with age, you are at higher risk of developing shingles. Immunisation is recommended to help prevent you from developing this disease.

Did you know?

  • About 1 in 3 people who have not been immunised against the chickenpox or shingles virus will develop shingles at some point in their lives.1
A late middle aged woman retrieving pots from her garden shed.

What is it?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a disease caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person gets chickenpox (usually in childhood) and recovers, the virus can remain ‘hidden’ in your body for many years without causing disease and become active again later in life resulting in shingles.It mainly occurs in those with a weakened immune system or older adults whose immunity to the virus may have naturally decreased over time.

Shingles can cause a painful, blistering rash; and can lead to serious complications such as severe, long-lasting nerve pain.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of shingles is a painful, blistering skin rash. The rash can appear on any part of the body, including the face (usually on one side), and often has a characteristic ‘belt-like’ pattern.

Other symptoms, which can occur for several days before the rash appears, may include:

  • tingling, burning sensation where the rash will appear
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • discomfort when looking at bright lights.

Once the rash appears, it is typically painful and blistering, and can last between 10 to 15 days.

For some people, the pain continues even after the rash disappears. If pain lasts for more than 3 months, it is called post-herpetic neuralgia (long-term nerve pain due to damage caused by the virus).

Depending on where the rash appears, other complications may include:

  • serious eye problems, including blindness
  • pneumonia
  • hearing problems
  • nerve problems
  • swelling of the brain
  • scarring
  • secondary bacterial skin infection
  • death

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following shingles. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about shingles.

How is it spread?

Shingles is the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus which has been lying hidden in your own body after you had chickenpox, which means it occurs from inside your own body. If you haven’t had chickenpox before, you can’t get shingles. However, if you had very mild chickenpox, you may not even remember ever having it- you can still develop shingles. You can get chickenpox by coming into contact with the fluid from shingles blisters, whether through direct contact with the lesions or by touching dressings, soiled clothes and so on.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who has had chickenpox, even very mild cases, is at risk of developing shingles later in life. Your risk of shingles increases as you get older (affects half of people who live to 80 years); and those with weakened immunity are also at risk of more severe complications.

Other people may also be at risk of shingles. Please speak to your doctor regarding your individual circumstances.

Who should be vaccinated?

  • The shingles (herpes zoster) vaccine is funded under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for adults aged 70 years, with a short-term catch-up program for adults aged 71-79. It is also recommended (but not funded) for all adults aged 60 years and over. Those aged 50 years and over who live in the same house as someone with a weakened immune system are recommended to be immunised. For more information speak to your doctor.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    •  Immunisations may be recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases All adults Planning for a baby Pregnancy 65 and over 70 to 79 years Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander adults
    Chickenpox (varicella)            
     
    Diphtheria            
     
    Hepatitis B            
     
    Measles            
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease            
     
    Meningococcal B disease            
     
    Mumps            
     
    Pneumococcal disease+            
    Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 50 years of age, with a second dose recommended five years later. All non-Indigenous people can receive a free vaccine at 65 years of age. Women planning pregnancy who have risk factors for pneumococcal disease, including smokers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, should be assessed for pneumococcal vaccination.
    Rubella            
     
    Shingles (Herpes zoster)+            
    The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine is funded for adults aged 70 years, with a short-term catch-up program for adults aged 71-79. It is also recommended (but not funded) for all adults over 60 years of age.
    Tetanus            
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)            
     
    Annual flu+            
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all adults, and is funded for pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy), people aged 65 and over, people with certain medical conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
    • 20
    • 21

Treatment

Shingles can be treated with antiviral medicines as long as it is given within three days of the rash appearing. Antiviral medicines can help shorten a shingles attack and ease pain. If the rash becomes infected, antibiotics may be given.

For those who develop nerve pain, medicine to relieve the pain may also be given.

Important information

For information about shingles (herpes zoster) immunisation contact your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

References

  1. Shingles (herpes zoster) | Department of Health. https://beta.health.gov.au/health-topics/shingles-herpes-zoster (accessed September 2018)

AUS/VAC/0099/18 Date of Approval November 2018