Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the skin surrounding it. Common symptoms include a tingling sensation, followed by localised pain and a rash which develops into clusters of painful, itchy, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters usually affect an area on one side of the body, often the chest, back or side. In most cases, the painful rash lasts 7 to 10 days and takes two to four weeks to fully heal.
Shingles infection can affect one side of the face. In 10-20% of shingles cases it can develop in the eye (ophthalmic shingles), which can cause severe pain. In about 4% of these cases shingles can lead to long-term effects such as decreased vision or even permanent blindness in that eye. If certain nerves in the head are infected, the person may experience hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, loss of taste, or Bell’s palsy (paralysis of the face). These symptoms are known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which may leave people with some degree of permanent hearing loss or facial paralysis.
Shingles can cause complications such as “postherpetic neuralgia” (PHN), a severe burning, throbbing or stabbing nerve pain which can last for several months or even years after the rash has gone. Current treatments for PHN are not very effective. It is very rare in people under the age of 50, but quite common in older people, affecting more than 1 in 10 of those who get shingles (14,000 people a year in the 70+ age group). Sometimes PHN leads to hospitalisation.