Shingles Complications and Health Risks

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

The virus lies dormant, lurking inside your body, and can become reactivated at any time. It sure sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but the varicella zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles, does just that.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shingles affects about 1 million people in the United States each year. Once a person is infected with the varicella zoster virus, it remains in the nerve cell bodies even after the initial infection is past.


Unsightly shingles symptoms include a tender skin rash, usually on one side of the body. The initial rash forms blisters, which scab over in about a week. Additional symptoms may include chills, headache and fever.

“Any area of the body can be affected, but the most common areas of occurrence are on the side of the body from the mid-back to the lower spine,” says physician Bruce Ruben, MD, medical director of Encompass HealthCare in Michigan. “Although it can occur at all ages, the incidence of shingles is highest among individuals 60 years or older.”

When and why shingles flares up is not fully understood, but there are some known risks for reactivation of the virus. “One common trigger, which often surprises people, is significant sun exposure,” says Benjamin Ticho, MD, associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. “Shingles can also arise from evident or obvious triggers, such as acute illness and trauma, but often has no obvious cause.”

Making matters worse, a shingles infection may not end when the burning, blistering rash clears. In many instances, infections leave you dealing with complications for years afterward.

Potential Long-Term Complications

As if developing a burning skin rash is not bad enough, shingles outbreaks can lead to additional complications, some of which can be distressing and long-term:  

Post-herpetic neuralgia: “One of the most feared shingles long-term complications is post-herpetic neuralgia,” says Ticho. “What may happen in shingles patients is the sensory, or pain, nerve is damaged, and it often remains ‘turned on’ or raw long after the infection has cleared.” persists beyond four months from the initial rash. For some it goes on for years and is difficult to treat. It is much more common in older age groups and is rare in children.

Vision loss: If shingles occurs near the eyes, it can lead to cornea scarring and possible vision loss.

Skin infections: In some instances, the skin lesions can become infected. The most common cause of a bacterial skin infection in shingles is staphylococcus aureus, causing what is commonly known as a “staph infection.”

Increased risk of stroke and heart attack: A research study published in January 2014 journal “Neurology,” indicates people who develop shingles may be at increased risk for heart attack and stroke. It appears active infection and later, inflammation leads to blood vessel damage, which, in turn, can affect blood flow to the heart or brain.

Next Steps

There are some things you can do to decrease your chances of developing shingles complications:

  • Consider getting the chickenpox vaccine, which will prevent an initial infection with the varicella zoster virus.
  • The CDC recommends adults older than 60 get the shingles vaccine.

If you do develop shingles, ask your doctor about taking certain antiviral medications, which may decrease the severity of your symptoms.

For Family Caregivers

Children who have a history of chickenpox before the age of one are also at an increased risk for developing shingles. Symptoms in children tend to be mild, according to Boston Children’s Hospital. If your child develops shingles, you want to keep him comfortable.

  • To prevent spreading the bubbling blisters, avoid direct contact with the infected site by keeping blisters covered loosely with clothing. Additionally, wash your hands immediately after you apply creams or lotions to your child’s skin. Shingles is spread during the blister phase and it’s not as infectious once the blisters scab,” says Ticho.
  • Medication may be recommended based on your child’s age and severity of symptoms. In addition, over-the-counter pain medication, wet compresses and calamine lotion may help reduce discomfort. 

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