It is estimated that by 85 years of age, about half of all Australians will have

experienced an episode of shingles (herpes zoster). It is caused by the

same virus that causes chickenpox - the varicella zoster virus. The first exposure

to the virus causes chickenpox, then the virus remains inactive in the body and

may reactivate later in life, usually when the immune system is weakened.

The reactivation is known as shingles, with symptoms that are different from

chickenpox. These symptoms include:

  • fever and fatigue
  • a burning, itching or numb sensation on the skin on one side of the body,
    usually on the eye, mouth, face, chest, back or abdomen
  • A painful, blistering rash on this same area within 2-3 days, which lasts for
    2-4 weeks
  • 50% of people experience debilitating pain, known as post herpetic neuralgia
    (PHN), which can last for 3 months, or in some cases for years.
  • The virus can be spread by direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. However
  • this will NOT immediately cause shingles (it will cause chickenpox in someone who has not previously had chickenpox).

Shingles is cause by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus that has been in your body usually since childhood. 

Factors that contribute to the reactivation of the virus are advancing age, immune 

suppressing diseases and medications, as well as physical and emotional stress.


Anti-viral medication is most effective if started within three days of the rash appearing. 

You will need a prescription, so it is best to see the doctor as soon as you suspect that 

you may have shingles. Treatment with this medication reduces both the severity

and the chance of complications. Medications to treat nerve pain are also available on 

prescription. Once the lesions have crusted over, capsaican cream (Zostrix) can be used to

relieve pain.


Vaccination reduces the chance of shingles, reduces the severity if an outbreak does occur 

and reduces the rate of PHN. Natural vaccination occurs when adults are exposed to children 

with chickenpox, however this is less common now in Australia as more children are

vaccinated against chickenpox.

People with a diet low in fruits and vegetables have three times the risk of shingles compared 

to those with a wealthy diet. This is thought to be due the benefit of maintaining a healthy

immunity with a well balanced diet.

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