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Shingles (herpes zoster)

What is shingles (herpes zoster)?

Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella), when the initial infection occurs during childhood. Once chickenpox has resolved, the virus stays in the nerve cells of the body for life. It can be reactivated later and cause shingles.

The first signs of shingles are a burning and painful feeling in an area of skin, followed by a characteristic blistering rash, usually on one side of your body, along the affected nerve in the skin. Usually, the rash appears on the chest, back or abdomen, but it can also appear on the face or head. After the rash has settled, the painful and tingling sensation in the affected skin area, which is known as post-herpetic neuralgia or post-zoster pain, can last for months or even years.

Who can get shingles and can it spread to other people?

Anyone who has had chickenpox (varicella) in the past may develop shingles (herpes zoster). The disease can occur at any age, but people older than 50 years are affected most. People with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk of getting shingles. Usually, people have shingles only once in their lives. But sometimes, especially if you have a weakened immune system, you might get repeat infections. The likelihood of repeat infections increases over time after initial infection.

The blisters of the shingles rash contain the varicella zoster virus and are infectious. The virus is spread by direct contact with the fluid from the blisters and can cause chickenpox in people who have not had chickenpox before or have not had the chickenpox vaccine.

To avoid spreading the virus to non-immune people make sure to cover your rash until it has dried out and avoid close physical contact with others. People who have shingles should also wash their hands often and practice good hand hygiene to minimise the risk of spreading the disease.


What are the recommendations for vaccination?

To reduce the chance of developing shingles, vaccination is recommended for people aged 50 years and over. Currently two vaccines are approved for use in Austria, with the inactivated vaccine (Shingrix) being the preferred one. This vaccine is suitable for people aged 18 and older who are at a higher risk of developing shingles. The vaccine is usually also recommended for people who have had shingles before. However, if you should get the vaccine depends on your individual situation and can be best discussed with your doctor.


How to get vaccinated?

The inactivated vaccine is administered in two doses, at least 2 months apart. In some cases, vaccination may also be helpful for people with certain underlying conditions who are younger than 50. Please consult your doctor for individual advice.