Can You Die From Shingles?

Risks Associated With Shingles

Shingles is a common condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. For most healthy adults, shingles is not life-threatening, although it can be quite painful. 

Untreated shingles can lead to complications in certain people. This might include older adults and those with compromised immune systems. Complications in these groups could lead to death.

Learn about shingles, its complications and risk factors, and when to reach out to your doctor.

shingles rash

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What Is Shingles? 

Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, often decades later. Both shingles and chickenpox come from the same virus, the varicella-zoster virus

Signs and symptoms of shingles usually appear on one side of the body. Symptoms might include: 

  • Burning, pain, numbness, and tingling of the skin
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Red rash that appears after a few days of pain
  • Fluid-filled blisters that will burst open and crust
  • Itching 

Additional symptoms include:

Pain is one of the earliest signs of shingles, and for some people, pain can be intense. It is possible to experience shingles pain without a rash.

Rash and blisters are most often seen on the waist, chest, abdomen, or back, but a person may also experience symptoms on the face, on the arms, and in the eyes, ears, and mouth. While rare, the virus can also affect internal organs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three American adults will develop shingles in their lifetime. Shingles is rare in children.

Up to 4% of people who get shingles will be hospitalized for complications, and most are older adults and people with weakened immune symptoms. According to the CDC, shingles kills up to 100 people a year, many of whom come from high-risk groups.  

Risks and Complications

The most common complication of shingles is long-term nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN pain usually occurs in the area where the shingles rash originally appeared and eventually healed.

According to the CDC, up to 18% of people will develop PHN after a shingles outbreak. Older adults have a higher risk for PHN than middle-age or younger adults after a shingles outbreak.

Untreated shingles is also associated with other severe and sometimes life-threatening complications. Left untreated, some complications of shingles could lead to death.

Vision

Vision loss or eye damage may occur if shingles affects the eyes. According to Harvard Medical School, up to 20% of shingles cases involve nerves of the head, including various parts of the “the eyelid, the eye surface, and the deeper portions of the eye.” In some of these cases, vision impairment can occur, including blindness.

Hearing

Hearing loss or hearing problems may occur due to a condition called Ramsay Hunt syndrome if a shingles outbreak affects the facial nerve near one of the eyes. This syndrome can cause facial paralysis and hearing loss in the affected ear.

Skin Infections

Bacterial skin infections can occur as a result of open blisters and can easily become severe and life-threatening if left untreated.

Pneumonia

Between 5% and 15% of shingles cases will lead to some type of pulmonary (lung) illness. Pulmonary symptoms can occur one to six days after the development of shingles.

Risk factors for pneumonia include being pregnant, older age, smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and immunosuppression (suppression of the body’s immune system from illness or medication use and its ability to fight illness).

Encephalitis

Encephalitis (brain inflammation) occurs when an infection spreads to the brain. This is rare, but is often seen with viruses like varicella-zoster and is more common in people who are immunocompromised.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced, keeping the brain from getting vital oxygen and nutrients. Brain cells can die within a few minutes if this interruption continues.

A study reported in 2014 in Clinical Infectious Diseases found a significantly increased risk for stroke up to six months after a shingles outbreak. That study looked at the medical records of British patients from 1987 to 2012 and identified 6,500 people had experienced a stroke related to their development of shingles.

Researchers also found that the risk for stroke was 63% higher after the first four weeks of a shingles episode, with that risk decreasing over the six months after that episode. Further, that risk was three times higher for people who developed a shingles rash that affected the eyes. Oral antiviral treatment can decrease the risk of stroke related to shingles.

Signs of Stroke

A stroke is a critical medical emergency that requires immediate medical treatment to reduce brain damage and other complications.

Signs of a stroke include:

  • Trouble with speaking and understanding what others are saying
  • Sudden paralysis or numbness of the arm, leg, or face
  • Blackened vision in one or both eyes
  • A sudden severe headache that might be accompanied by vomiting, dizziness, or altered consciousness
  • Trouble with balance and walking

Call 911 right away and don’t wait to see if symptoms pass. Every second with a stroke counts, and the longer you wait, the greater chance of brain damage and disability.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone who has ever had varicella-zoster virus is at risk for developing shingles. But having certain health conditions might increase your risk for shingles and the potential for related complications.

Risk factors for shingles complications are:

  • Having a condition that weakens your immune system, such as HIV, cancer, or an autoimmune disease
  • Taking medications that cause your immune system to become immunocompromised
  • Long-term use of corticosteroids, like prednisone
  • Being older than age 60: Your risk for complications of shingles can increase with age.

If any of these risk factors apply to you, talk to your doctor about your risk for shingles, what you can do to prevent it, and its possible complications should you develop the condition.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor as soon as you first notice signs and symptoms of shingles. The National Institute on Aging recommends that people see their doctor no later than three days after the appearance of a shingles rash.

Early treatment will reduce your risk for complications, heal the rash quicker, and even reduce the potential for scarring.

It is always a good idea to reach out to your doctor if you notice persistent pain or an itchy rash on your body. This is especially important if you are older than age 60 because, with older age, the risk for nerves becoming damaged is higher than for younger adults.

Even if you have already been diagnosed, you should reach out to your doctor if the rash spreads to your face, an eye, or an ear. You will need immediate attention if you think your rash or a shingles blister has improperly healed or appears infected. Signs of a skin infection might include swelling, redness, pain, pus, and itching in the affected skin area.

Who Should Receive Shingles Vaccine and When?

The best way to protect yourself from shingles and its many complications is to get vaccinated against it. Your healthcare professional or a pharmacist can give you the vaccine as an injection in the upper arm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all healthy adults ages 50 and older receive two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine). The doses should be given at least two to six months apart to adequately protect against shingles.


A Word From Verywell

Most people who get shingles will recover fully from it, and few people die from this condition. The rash and blisters should clear up within a few weeks. While the pain can last a couple of months, it usually improves with time and eventually goes away.

For some people, however, the pain will last longer than the rash and blisters, and they will experience PHN pain that will come and go long after the rash has cleared. But PHN and other complications are preventable with early diagnosis and treatment.

If you suspect you might have shingles, reach out to your doctor right away to start treatment. This is especially important if you are at a higher risk for complications because you are an older adult, have a compromised immune system, are pregnant, or receive treatments that leave you immunocompromised.

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Article Sources
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