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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger HendersonReviewed on 13.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

A shingles rash is caused by a virus called herpes zoster, and starts as tiny red bumps or blotches that then become weeping blisters (known as vesicles). This most often appears on the chest, back, stomach, neck or face. People sometimes notice a tingling or burning in the days before the rash appears, and may have a headache, mild fever or feel otherwise unwell.

It is distinctive in that it will only appear on one half of the body, and usually only covers a small area. This virus was originally caught as chickenpox (varicella zoster virus), usually in childhood. While your body recovered from this, the virus lays asleep, or dormant, in the nerves, and is reactivated under stress or illness, and usually in those over 60 years old. Following the pathway of nerves means the virus is only activated from the nerves leading off the spine to one side or the other - a so-called dermatomal distribution.

Doctor’s advice

Is it contagious?

You can't "catch" shingles from other people with shingles or chickenpox, but if the blisters are still weeping, you can pass it on to people who have never had chickenpox, most likely young children, and there is a risk to an unborn child if a woman has not had chickenpox and catches it in pregnancy.

When should I see my doctor?

Book an urgent appointment with your doctor, who will assess this and may give anti-viral tablets. Anti-viral tablets will not rid you of the virus, but they can help reduce the time taken until recovery, and the severity of symptoms.

They may also reduce the risk of a phenomenon called post-herpetic neuralgia, where pain can last for weeks or months afterwards, even though the rash and vesicles have cleared.

There is urgency as the anti-viral tablets have more chance of working the sooner they are taken, ideally within 72 hours of symptoms starting. Shingles near the eye or ear can be a serious cause for concern - see your doctor, or call 111 or attend your Emergency Department if this is outside working hours.

Am I fit for work?

You may be fit for work if you feel well enough, but should avoid work until the vesicles have dried out if there is any chance you will come into contact with young children, those with a weakened immune system or pregnant women, as you may pass it on as chickenpox.

Can I protect myself from shingles?

A shingles vaccine is available as a one-off for people with certain serious medical conditions or those in their 70s - if you are within this age group, check with your doctor's practice to see if you are eligible.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 13.10.2023