In some people, shingles can cause potentially dangerous side effects such as permanent vision loss. It may also lead to pneumonia, inflammation of the brain, and death, but these effects are rare.
Being older and having a weakened immune system increase a person’s risk of shingles.
This article discusses the symptoms and dangers of shingles, as well as the increased risk of shingles in some populations. It also examines the treatment, when to see a doctor, and strategies to prevent complications and reduce the spread of the virus.
Shingles — also called herpes zoster — is an infection that causes a painful rash. The cause of shingles is the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that produces chickenpox.
After someone recovers from chickenpox, the virus remains in their body in an inactive form. If the virus reactivates later, it can cause shingles.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:
- fluid-filled blisters
- itching, tingling, or numbness of the skin
- burning, shooting pain
- fever and chills
- upset stomach
People often experience pain, tingling, or itching in an area of skin several days before the rash appears in that area. Typically, the rash occurs in a single stripe around the right or left side of the body, but sometimes it affects one side of the face. The rash usually scabs over in
In some people, shingles can be serious. If the rash appears near the eye, it may lead to permanent damage and even vision loss.
Another complication involves ongoing pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Approximately
PHN may linger for months or years, causing some people to experience difficulties in performing daily activities such as dressing and cooking. Additionally, PHN
- weight loss
Very rare dangers of PHN include:
- hearing loss
- inflammation of the brain, or encephalitis
Severe complications can be fatal for some individuals.
If an individual has had chickenpox, they are at risk of developing shingles. The risk increases with age, as
Additionally, having a weakened immune system makes it harder for a person to fight all kinds of infections, including shingles. Factors that can harm immunity include:
- living with HIV
- having cancer
- taking organ transplant drugs
- undergoing cancer treatment
Shingles poses a greater danger to older adults and to people who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems. The infection does not appear to be a serious threat in infants.
An older adult has a
People with weakened immune systems
According to a 2020 review, shingles is more severe in people with weakened immune systems. This group has a greater risk of several complications.
Individuals who are pregnant
People who are pregnant can develop shingles, but the condition
Despite this, shingles can cause significant complications in pregnant people, according to a case report
Learn more about being pregnant and having shingles.
- acyclovir (Zovirax)
- valacyclovir (Valtrex)
- famciclovir (Famvir)
Treatment for symptoms may include either over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers and use of the following to help reduce itching:
- calamine lotion
- wet compresses
- colloidal oatmeal baths, which are lukewarm baths with ground oats in the water
If a person believes they may have shingles, they should contact a doctor as soon as possible. Treatment is
In fact, beginning treatment 2–3 days after the rash appears can dramatically:
- shorten the duration
- reduce symptoms such as pain
- decrease the risk of complications such as PHN
Even if someone has had shingles for more than 2–3 days, they should still consult a doctor because of the risk of complications.
People may be able to prevent complications of shingles in the following ways:
Limiting contact with rashes
Shingles spreads through direct contact with the fluid from rash blisters. The virus can spread to people who have not received the shingles vaccine and have never had chickenpox.
Even if a person has received the shingles vaccine, they may be at risk of developing the condition, although the risk is lower.
Additionally, people with a history of shingles may be at risk of reinfection. However, the risk is lower.
It is important to note that the virus cannot spread before the rash blisters appear or after they crust over.
- Cover the rash.
- Wash hands frequently.
- Avoid scratching or touching the rash.
- Until the rash crusts over, avoid contact with:
- premature or low weight infants
- pregnant people who have never had the shingles vaccine or chickenpox
- people with weakened immune systems
When someone who has not had chickenpox or received the vaccine comes into contact with the herpes-zoster virus, they may develop chickenpox.
The recombinant zoster vaccine (Shingrix) is the best way to prevent shingles and its complications, including PHN. Two doses are
Immunity remains strong for at least the first 7 years after vaccination.
The vaccine is less effective in people with weakened immune systems. Typically, the effectiveness of Shingrix in preventing shingles is 68–91%, depending on how the condition affects the immune system.
While shingles is not dangerous for many people, in very rare cases it can cause pneumonia, inflammation of the brain, and death. The infection may also lead to long-term pain. If shingles occurs on the face close to the eye, it may lead to vision loss.
Factors that increase the likelihood of developing shingles include older age and a weakened immune system.
Treatment includes antiviral medications and pain medications.
Getting the shingles vaccine can significantly lower the risk of developing shingles. People may be able to prevent complications such as PHN by covering the rash to avoid spreading the virus to others, among other measures.