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Spotlight on Shingles

Published on 14 May 2024 09:19 AM

A recent report reveals that 1 in 3 adults over the age of 50 will get shingles in their lifetime, yet knowledge of this preventable disease is lacking.

The report, published by the International Longevity Centre and entitled ‘Painfully Unaware: Improving older people’s understanding of shingles vaccination in an ageing society’, was based on a survey of 3,613 people aged 50 and over, living in nine European countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

The survey revealed that only 8% of participants had received a shingles vaccination, and that most people didn’t know how to spot the signs and symptoms of shingles or how severe an infection can be.

In recognition of World Immunisation Week (24 to 30 April), Age UK Wandsworth aims to redress this by raising awareness of shingles and how to prevent it.

What is Shingles?

Shingles (sometimes referred to as 'herpes zoster') is a viral infection that’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

You cannot catch shingles from another person, but you can catch chicken pox from someone with shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox before or you’ve not had the chickenpox vaccine.

With shingles, the virus can stay in your body and become active years later. The chances of this happening are greater if your immune system has been lowered because of stress, illness or treatments.

So if you’ve been diagnosed with shingles, you should avoid people who haven’t had chickenpox before, particularly those who are more vulnerable such as pregnant women, babies and anyone with a weakened immune system.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The first signs of shingles can include:

  • a tingling, burning or painful feeling on an area of skin
  • a headache and generally feeling unwell
  • a rash will usually occur a few days later

The rash that develops is usually found on the chest or tummy, but it can appear anywhere on the body, including face, eyes, and genitals. It first appears as blotches on the skin, on one side of the body only (a rash on both the left and right side of the body is unlikely to be shingles). Depending on your skin colour, it can be difficult to notice at this stage. The blotches then become itchy blisters that ooze fluid and a few days later dry out and scab.

It can take up to 4 weeks for the shingles rash to heal completely, and the skin can remain painful for some time after the rash has gone.

What is the treatment for shingles?

Depending on the severity of the symptoms and any risk of complications, treatment for shingles can include antiviral tablets, painkillers, steroid tablets or medicines that help with nerve pain.

A mild rash may not need any treatment.

Can shingles be prevented?

According to the NHS website (updated Nov 2023), vaccination helps reduce the risk of getting shingles. A shingles vaccine is available on the NHS for:

  • people who turned 65 on or after 1 September 2023
  • people aged 70 to 79 who have not yet been vaccinated
  • people aged 50 or over with a severely weakened immune system

Further resources:

Click here for more information and advice from the NHS on what to do if you think you have shingles.

Click here to read ILS’s “Painfully Aware” report on shingles.

Click here for more information on World Immunisation Week.

(Image by Gustavo Fring)