Shingles Explanations

Shingles, whose technical term is herpes zoster, is a viral infection. Its main symptoms are burning pain and a rash in the form of blisters. The virus responsible, Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), was already present in the body when the disease broke out. Shingles only occurs in people who have had chickenpox, as the virus is the trigger and cause of both diseases.

What is shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster or herpes zoster, is an infectious skin disease. It is triggered by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which belongs to the herpes viruses. It is also the causative agent of chickenpox. Only people who have already had chickenpox can get shingles. This infection is therefore also referred to as a secondary infection.

According to, the name shingles is derived from the typical skin rash that causes swollen and reddish blisters that wrap around the body along the spine. Since chickenpox usually occurred in the childhood of those affected, it is mostly adults and older people (between the ages of 60 and 70) who get shingles. The disease is hardly contagious.


As already mentioned, the varicella zoster virus (VZV) is responsible for both chickenpox and shingles. Shingles can only occur if the patient has previously had chickenpox. Therefore, the disease usually only occurs in older people (often after the age of 45).

The shingles virus spreads along the nerve fibers to the nerve nodes (dorsal root ganglia) that are present in the spine. The varicella-zoster virus nests in the nerve cells. After that, there may be no abnormalities for years. The virus is only reactivated in old age and develops into the well-known shingles. It is still unknown why the virus is only reactivated after a long time.

People with an immune deficiency or susceptibility to infections are often affected by shingles. Hereditary or genetic causes within a family can also play a role. Stress and psychosomatic problems can also trigger shingles.

In rare cases, the pathogen is also transmitted directly without the affected person already suffering from chickenpox. However, he must have had direct contact with the blisters of a shingles patient. But then he gets the chickenpox and not the shingles itself.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

Shingles is a painful rash that usually spreads from the spine like a belt around the body. Since the rash is mostly limited to this region. The skin is moderately to severely reddened and nodular lesions form, which are grouped into foci.

After some time in the course of the disease, the nodules form into playful blisters the size of a pinhead to the size of a pea. Often these blisters are filled with a bloody or watery fluid. In the later course of the disease, the blisters can fuse and later burst.

Before the typical skin rash of shingles occurs, those affected often have a general feeling of illness, which is also accompanied by tiredness or a slight fever. This feeling of illness increases significantly in the first few days of the illness. There is severe, burning pain in the area of ​​the body that will later be affected by the rash.

Many sufferers experience paresthesia. These are sensory disturbances in the affected body regions, which can manifest themselves in the form of a sensation of cold or heat, tingling, itching or numbness. In rare cases, symptoms of paralysis can occur as a result of shingles.


Shingles usually progresses without complications.

Although treatment by a doctor makes sense, around 60 percent of all cases heal on their own within two to four weeks. Usually only pigmented areas of skin remain, which appear either paler or tanned.

However, severe pain can also occur during the course of the disease of shingles. If the burning pain is too severe, pain therapy by a doctor should be considered.


Complications from shingles occur in about 20 percent of all cases and are therefore relatively common. These are particularly difficult in immunocompromised patients, but late treatment also increases the risk of a secondary disease. If shingles spreads over the head and face, viruses can settle on the auditory or optic nerve and, in the worst case, lead to loss of hearing or vision.

When viruses invade the brain, life-threatening meningitis may result. With a severely weakened immune system, the zoster virus occasionally settles throughout the body and also affects internal organs. A very painful and not uncommon complication of shingles is the so-called postherpetic neuralgia, in which the typical pain caused by nerve damage can be felt long after the rash has healed – in some cases it even lasts for life.

The risk of this long-term persistence of zoster pain increases with age, but can be reduced with early treatment. Even less dramatic shingles often result in bacterial infections, pigment disorders or scarring as well as signs of paralysis and sensory disturbances in the area of ​​the previously damaged skin.

When should you go to the doctor?

If there is a suspicion of shingles, then the doctor should be consulted immediately. Patients can contact their general practitioner . Outside of office hours, for example on weekends or public holidays, no time should be lost. During these times, patients can contact the emergency room of the regional hospital or an emergency practice. The earlier the treatment of shingles begins, the better its course can be alleviated and rapid healing promoted.

Hoping that shingles will go away on its own makes absolutely no sense from a medical point of view. In any case, shingles requires professional treatment and monitoring, while regular check-ups with the doctor are important for the healing process. In severe cases, patients may be admitted to hospital as inpatients. The family doctor or dermatologist can make a recommendation and arrange for the referral.

Herpes zoster is announced by reddened, sensitive skin areas, on which very itchy and burning blisters form very quickly. If the patient can observe these signs, he should not hesitate and consult a doctor immediately. Even if the suspicion is unclear, it makes sense to have the diagnosis clarified. Treating shingles yourself with supposedly helpful home remedies, on the other hand, does not make sense.

Treatment & Therapy

Shingles is treated with antivirals. The disease is usually harmless and can be easily treated. In patients with a weakened immune system (usually older people), however, complications, especially severe pain, can also occur.

However, a doctor’s visit is always advisable. The aim of medical therapy is then to relieve the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.

With the medication already mentioned, you can treat and contain skin redness and pain well. The patient himself can support the treatment of his shingles by resting his body. He should also take good care of the rash. Special creams and powders prescribed by the doctor are suitable for this.

Outlook & Forecast

If shingles is diagnosed by a specialist and treated as quickly as possible, a good prognosis can be made. If the prescribed medication is taken regularly, the symptoms will be relieved within a short period of time. If stressful situations are also avoided, the disease will subside after a few weeks.

The person concerned does not have to expect any permanent damage. If the disease is diagnosed during pregnancy and treated immediately, there is no danger for the unborn child either.

The causative agent of shingles is herpes zoster. However, since this pathogen remains in the body, those affected should ensure a strong immune system to avoid recurrence of the disease. This is the only way to ensure a consistently good prognosis.

If shingles is not detected, permanent damage can be expected. The same applies if the illness is delayed. A promising prognosis cannot be made in this case either. Since there is significant pain associated with this condition, there is a risk that this pain will become chronic. A significant impairment of the quality of life is therefore to be expected.

In addition, sensory disturbances or signs of paralysis in the affected body region must be expected. If these are not treated, the entire organism can be affected. Furthermore, it is to be expected that scarring will remain and permanent impairments will arise.


Unlike chickenpox, shingles is not very contagious. Vaccination has recently become available that can reduce the risk of shingles by around 50%. This vaccine can also protect against the painful condition post herpetic neuralgia, which can be a possible complication of shingles. The risk is reduced by more than 66% through vaccination. However, many people also have shingles discussed. However, this alternative healing method is controversial in conventional medicine.


The aftercare measures after a treated shingles are primarily of a caring nature. The skin is severely attacked by the herpes zoster infection. After the scabs that remain after many shingles rashes fall off, the skin underneath is very thin and sensitive. Mild creams and a nutritious diet promote skin healing.

It is recommended to drink enough and to take vitamins. If there are wounds, they should be kept clean accordingly. Occasionally there are also purulent pimples. These should be treated with an antiseptic without irritating them too much. Follow-up care for skin health can take time after shingles.

In addition, some sufferers develop post-herpetic neuralgia. Elderly patients are affected more often. This can sometimes be very painful and requires the administration of painkillers over a period of time. In addition, these neuralgias can have a very negative effect on the quality of life of those affected. Accordingly, the aftercare can also be extended to other therapies (psychotherapy, movement therapy).

If the infection with the varicella-zoster virus has also spread to other parts of the body (nerves, eyes, ears, etc.), follow-up examinations are advisable. Damage should be found quickly in order to initiate medical measures if necessary.

You can do that yourself

Patients with shingles can take some self-help measures to help the healing process.

Contact with other people, especially small children, the sick and pregnant women, should be avoided within the first few weeks after infection. In the long term, a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, sufficient sleep and exercise in the fresh air is recommended. With regard to nutrition, the following applies: avoid food that is difficult to digest and eat more spicy food. Alcohol and other stimulants should be avoided entirely.

Rest is also important in order not to further burden the immune system. Further bacterial infections should be avoided through adequate personal hygiene and careful handling of shingles. Therefore: Do not open blisters and only remove crusts under medical supervision. At most, barks may be carefully removed with moist compresses and compresses. In addition to over-the-counter medicines, petroleum jelly and natural creams also help against pain and itching.

Means from herbal medicine and homeopathy, such as tea tree oil, healing mud packs or Schuessler salts, have proven particularly effective. As an alternative, cold milk is recommended, which is applied to the affected area of ​​skin with a washcloth. Gentle cooling helps with pain, as do applications with lemon balm or Epsom salt. In order to avoid complications, the measures mentioned should only be applied after consultation with the doctor.