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shingles; chicken pox; rash; painful sores; nerves ;


What is shingles?

Shingles is caused by the virus that causes chicken pox.

old peopleAfter someone has had chicken pox, the virus stays in the nerve cells of the person's spine (called 'nerve roots'). It does not damage the nerve or the way the nerve works until, for some reason which is not yet clear, the virus starts to grow again, causing shingles.

Children under 12 rarely get shingles.

Older people, especially the very old [over 80 years] are more likely to get shingles.

How do you get shingles?

You can only get shingles if you have had chickenpox.

chicken poxBut if someone has shingles, then the watery stuff from the blisters can give someone else chicken pox if that person hasn't had it.

You can't catch the shingles virus through the air when someone coughs or sneezes like you can with chickenpox.

The virus may become active again if a person is very stressed at some time later in life or has had a lot of illness which has overworked the body's immune system.

[The immune system is like an army of cells in the body which rushes to fight off any germs that try to get into the body to make you sick].

Check out our topic on the Immune system if you want to know more.

What shingles looks and feels like

  • Shingles starts with pain in the nerves where the virus has been hiding.This pain is caused by the damage that the virus does to the nerve as it wakes up and becomes active again.
  • spotsThe pain travels along that nerve. Although the virus is in the spinal part of the nerve, the pain is felt as if it is on the skin. It is only on one side and often it affects the nerves to the chest, tummy, leg or face. It comes in one place only, not over the whole body like chicken pox.
  • A few days later, spots like chicken pox spots break out on the skin following the pathway of the nerve. The spots are only in the area that the nerve goes to, and can be in a band from the back around one side only to the tummy (or outer side of the leg, or one side of the face).
  • These spots turn into watery blisters and then start to dry up (the spots look like chicken pox spots and heal the same way).
  • The pain of shingles can be a tingling feeling, or can be really very painful for a long time, even after the spots are gone.

Looking after shingles

If someone develops pain in a band around the body that could be shingles, and goes to the doctor straight away, then there is an anti-viral medicine that can help make it a short illness. The medicine only works if you start taking it as soon as possible after the rash appears.

This drug helps the spots heal quickly, stops any new spots coming and shortens the painful time.

If you, or someone you know, has shingles then:

  • Stay home and rest. Staying home is a good idea as the person with shingles could give chicken pox to someone. Once the sores have healed the person cannot pass the infection on.
  • If you need to, take paracetamol for the pain. (If the pain is very bad, the doctor might suggest stronger pain relief, but follow the doctor's advice). Stronger pain relief can cause people to be sleepy, and they should not ride a bike or operate machinery after taking this sort of medication.
  • Keep the spots uncovered unless you need to go out. They heal better if they are open to the air.
  • don't scratchPut calamine lotion or other soothing lotion on the spots to help dry them up. Ask a pharmacist about what can be used.
  • Don’t hug anyone who hasn't had chickenpox or been immunised against chicken pox!
  • Don’t pick at the spots or they could get infected.
  • Be careful to use your own towel and keep it away from everyone else.

After shingles

resting in bedThe pain from shingles can hang around for many weeks afterwards so if you or someone in your family have had shingles don't try to rush around too much at first.

If it is your parent or caregiver who has had shingles and they have the severe pain that can often linger after the shingles, they will need your help to get meals and keep the house tidy because the pain can make them very tired. It may take a while but it will get better.

Dr Kim says

Dr Kim
"It's not usual for kids to get shingles. But your mum, dad or grandparents may get it. Love them from a distance unless you have had chickenpox. There is a vaccination against chickenpox now which will also protect you from shingles. Maybe mum or dad can talk to your doctor to see if it is a good idea for you to have it."

In South Australia kids are immunisaed against chickenpox when they are 18 months old and again when they aare in year 8.

People over 70 can be immunised against shigles now. Maybe you could ask the 'oldies' in your family if they have had this 'shot' yet.


You know you've got shingles
'cos shingles tingles
All along the nerve.
When the spots go away
Some pain may stay.
Chickenpox starts it
So do stay away
From people who have it.
And, if you may
Get an injection
From doctor or nurse.
Chicken pox is yukky
But shingles is worse!


What some kids said

"My grandma had shingles on her face. She looked scarey but I still loved her."  Mark

"My mum saw the shingles when she was taking her bathers off. She thought she had been stung by a jellyfish!" Alex

"My dad had shingles on his body but it was his leg that hurt for a long time afterwards." Mel 

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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