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Shingles – the dormant danger

Last updated on November 14, 2023 First published on November 13, 2023

It is estimated that every third person in Switzerland contracts shingles once in their lifetime. The painful skin disease is caused by the varicella zoster virus. Vaccination is recommended for people over the age of 65 and for people who are particularly at risk.

Shingles is caused by varicella viruses. These are the same viruses that cause chickenpox. After a chickenpox infection, the varicella viruses lie dormant unnoticed in the nerve nodes in the body. If the immune system is weakened, for example as a result of flu or stress, these viruses are reactivated and shingles develops. In Switzerland, it is estimated that one in three people will contract shingles at some point in their lives.

How does shingles manifest itself?

“If the immune system is weakened, the viruses multiply and the body reacts with inflammation,” explains Christian Greis, Attending Physician in Dermatology. The first symptoms may be fatigue and a slight fever. A few days later, a red, itchy skin rash and the formation of blisters occur. The pulling or stabbing pain on the skin is often accompanied by an unpleasant tingling sensation. Unlike chickenpox, the rash is localized and often occurs on the trunk or face in the form of a stripe or a belt, hence the name shingles.

How is shingles treated?

“It is important to see a doctor early on so that shingles can be treated correctly from the outset,” says Christian Greis. The focus is on the adequate treatment of pain. The blisters should also not be scratched open, as this can lead to a bacterial infection. The disease is usually mild and the rash usually heals after two to four weeks. Depending on the situation, antiviral therapy with tablets can be carried out.

But shingles is not always harmless. Especially after an illness in the head area, a permanent and painful nerve inflammation can occur, a so-called post-zosteric neuralgia, which in extreme cases can persist for months or even years. Fortunately, this rarely happens.

Vaccination for people over 65 and immunocompromised people

Shingles often breaks out in older people. The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) therefore recommends that people over 65 and immunocompromised people get vaccinated against shingles. Vaccinated people have a significantly reduced risk of contracting shingles. If an illness does occur, the course of the disease tends to be mild.

How contagious is shingles?

Shingles is significantly less infectious than the original chickenpox. Nevertheless, shingles viruses can be transmitted to other people who have not previously had chickenpox. This means that people with shingles should not have direct contact with people who have not previously contracted chickenpox – especially if they are pregnant. If the rash is crusted over, you are no longer contagious. This is usually the case after five to seven days.

Responsible specialist

Christian Greis, MBA, Dr. med.

Attending Physician, Department of Dermatology

Tel. +41 44 255 11 11
Specialties: Dermatosurgery, General dermatology, Telemedicine

Responsible Department