Ditch the itch: Tackling shingles

Have you ever heard someone mention shingles and wondered what it really is? Well, you're not alone. Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral infection that can cause a painful rash, often accompanied by blisters. In this article, we will explore the ins and outs of shingles, and practical tips to prevent and manage this itchy condition.

What are shingles symptoms?

Shingles typically present as a rash and blisters along a specific nerve pathway. The most commonly affected areas include the chest, abdomen, face, or back. The rash is often accompanied by severe pain, burning, tingling, or itching. The pain can sometimes persist even after the rash has healed, a condition known as postherpetic neuralgia.

Causes of shingles

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. It occurs when this virus reactivates in the nervous system after you have recovered from chickenpox. While most cases occur in individuals over 50, it can affect people of all ages, including children and young adults.

Difference between shingles and chickenpox

They may be caused by the same virus, but shingles and chickenpox manifest differently and require different approaches.

Unlike the widespread chickenpox rash, shingles typically present as localised rashes and blisters along a specific nerve pathway. The most commonly affected areas include the chest, abdomen, face, or back.

The symptoms and modes of transmission differ with chickenpox and shingles, too. Chickenpox is highly contagious and spreads through direct contact with the fluid from the blisters, or droplets from coughs and sneezes. Shingles, on the other hand, is not directly contagious, but the virus can be transmitted to individuals who haven't had chickenpox or the vaccine, potentially causing them to develop chickenpox rather than shingles.

You cannot, however, get shingles from someone with chickenpox.

Early signs of shingles

The early signs of shingles include pain, itching, tingling, or burning sensation on one side of the body or face. A few days later, a rash and fluid-filled blisters may appear in the same area, which can turn into scabs after a few days.

How to relieve itching from shingles

The itching from both shingles and chickenpox can feel like torture! We have some useful tips if you’re looking for ways to relieve the irritating itch that comes with shingles:

  • Wear loose-fitting clothes to avoid further irritation
  • Keep the rash clean and dry to reduce the risk of infection
  • Use a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel
  • Take paracetamol

How long do shingles last?

Unfortunately shingles in no easy feat, with most cases lasting three to five weeks. The pain that comes with the development of a rash usually goes away when the rash disappears, but sometimes there may still be some pain, this should get better over time.

Shingles prevention tips

The best way to prevent shingles is by getting a vaccination at your GP. A shingles vaccine is available on the NHS for people in their 70s, which helps reduce the risk of getting shingles. Speak to your GP for more information.

While vaccination is the most effective way to prevent shingles, maintaining general good health can also help reduce the risk of contracting the virus. This includes avoiding stress, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. Avoiding close contact with individuals who have chickenpox is also recommended.

Other tips to avoid both catching and spreading shingles include:

  • Using separate towels
  • Avoid public swimming or showering thoroughly before and after swimming
  • Wash your hands regularly

Shingles and a weakened immune system

A weakened immune system increases the risk and severity of shingles. It may be caused by various factors such as ageing, stress, certain medications, or medical conditions. A compromised immune system may struggle to fight off the virus, leading to an increased likelihood of developing shingles and experiencing more severe symptoms.

How your pharmacy can help

Your pharmacist can help with shingles by recommending over-the-counter painkillers to help ease the discomfort, in more severe instances, they may recommend antidepressants or anticonvulsants. Speak to your pharmacists for advice and treatment options.