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Q My sister has been diagnosed with shingles. Although I've heard of it, I'm not really sure what it is and whether it's contagious. We work together so I'm wondering if I'm at risk. Are there any symptoms I should look out for and how can I protect myself? A Shingles is caused by the same virus - herpes varicella zoster - and is basically a reappearance of chickenpox, which can occur many years after the original infection.

You can't catch shingles from somebody. However, if you haven't had chickenpox, as it's all the same virus, you could catch that from skin-to-skin contact with a person with shingles and then be at risk of developing shingles at a later stage.

After having chickenpox, the virus remains dormant. At a later point, something will trigger its reactivation - it's not clear what but it's likely to be a change to your immune system. The virus then re-emerges as shingles.

Shingles generally lasts two to four weeks and the first sign is normally a tingling or burning sensation in the affected area, pain and then a rash. You may also develop fever-like symptoms, muscle pain, feel tired and have a headache.

The rash will generally appear after a few days but can take as long as a week, and any part of the body can be affected. It will appear as red spots or blotches on the skin. These develop into itchy, fluid-filled blisters that have a similar appearance to chickenpox. They tend to burst after a few days, leaving scabs. From this time the rash takes up to a month to heal and can leave slight scarring. It is only contagious until the scabs have dried and scabbed.

Generally, if anti-viral treatment is begun within a few days of the rash appearing, it will help to lessen its severity.

If you get shingles, keep the sores clean and avoid scented products. Some people find an ice pack helps soothe, as can the application of calamine lotion.| Dr Joanna Longstaffe is clinical director of the Independent General Practice
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 24, 2012
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