Shingles is a skin and nerve infection. The most recognisable symptom is the distinctive shingles rash, a red, blistering band which usually breaks out on the stomach or abdomen.
Most people get chicken pox during childhood, which (except in very rare cases) gives them immunity from catching it again. However, the virus which caused the outbreak remains dormant within the body, and can become reactivated in adulthood as shingles.
No one knows exactly what causes the shingles virus to reactivate in some but not others, but age, stress and a weak immune system are all risk factors. Most sufferers are over the age of 50. It is rare but possible for children to get shingles.
Shingles affects around three in 1000 people in the UK every year, according to NHS sources.
Early symptoms of shingles include:
- muscle pain
- tingly, burning, numb or itchy skin
- general malaise
The rash begins as a band of red blotches before developing into itchy blisters similar to those caused by chicken pox.
It can appear anywhere, but is most commonly found on the stomach or abdomen. One distinctive trait of a shingles rash is that it only appears on one side of the body, never spreading across an imaginary line down the middle of your body.
The initial rash will develop into blisters, which should fade and dry out after about three days, although new blisters might develop for around a week. It may take anything from two to four weeks for the skin to heal completely.
Shingles is not a contagious disease. However, people with shingles who come into contact with someone who has not previously had chicken pox could give them chicken pox.
For this reason, anyone suffering from shingles should avoid these people if they could be endangered by catching chicken pox. At-risk groups include pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system.