‘I had never experienced anything like it’: the pain, risks, and first symptoms of shingles every adult should know

TV presenter Eamonn Holmes describes his experience with the excruciating disease caused by the chickenpox virus. Plus, the misconceptions and lack of awareness about shingles symptoms that can lead to debilitating complications.

Chickenpox was almost a childhood rite of passage before a vaccine was introduced for children in 2017. In fact, it was so common that it was often more surprising to hear of someone who had not had it.

Less well known is that the Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), the virus that causes chickenpox, doesn’t leave the body. Instead, it remains dormant in the nervous system where it can later reactivate as shingles.

The first signs of shingles can be a tingling or painful feeling in an area of skin, a headache, or a light fever. A few days later, a rash may appear. Usually, a shingles rash starts on the chest or abdomen, but it can appear anywhere on the body, including the face.

TV presenter Eamonn Holmes OBE is a former shingles patient.

“I remember feeling my face wasn't right and a bit itchy,” Holmes says of the first time he experienced shingles symptoms. “I went to bed, and I woke up with blisters and that was very frightening because I had never experienced anything like it. I had no idea what it was.”

Besides the immediate pain and discomfort that usually accompanies a shingles rash, more serious conditions such as persistent pain (post-herpetic neuralgia) can last for months or even years, potentially impacting a patient’s quality of life.

Holmes describes the persistent pain that followed as like “the nerve had a root, and you could feel it penetrating.

“It was deeper. It was a stabbing sort of pain.”

Eamonn Holmes picture of his shingles rash
Eamonn Holmes shared a picture of his shingles rash via his instagram account.

He also speaks of the impact shingles had on his day-to-day enjoyment of life.

“Everything becomes an irritation, whether you're sitting watching a TV programme, washing your hair, dressing, just lots of things,” he continues. “I mean, you're not going to go out to a restaurant, you're not going to want to be seen in public.”

Although rare, other challenging complications, like pneumonia, brain inflammation, and heart problems can occur. Another less common complication is Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which affects the nerves on the face, usually on one side, and can even cause temporary facial paralysis and hearing loss.

What causes shingles, and who is it at risk?

After a person contracts chickenpox, the VZV virus lies dormant in the nervous system and may reactivate in adulthood.

Studies have shown that, prior to the introduction of chickenpox vaccines, over 90% of people experience the effects of chickenpox in the first years of their lives, and 1 in 3 people will develop shingles in their lifetime. Shingles particularly affects older adults and is most common for people aged 50 or over.

People with cardiovascular conditions, respiratory conditions (such as asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and/or metabolic disorders such as diabetes) are at increased risk of shingles, as are individuals whose immune system may not be working properly as a result of a known disease, or who are taking medications that suppress the immune system (for example, undergoing cancer treatment, a bone marrow or organ transplant, or suffering from immune deficiencies and/or autoimmune diseases).

Leading a healthy lifestyle might strengthen your immune system, but the age-related decline of our body’s ability to protect us is part of the natural ageing process, making us more and more susceptible to shingles as we get older.

“Shingles can occur at any time in adulthood, so it is important to understand the risk factors and how shingles can significantly impact the quality of someone’s life,” says Sabine Luik, chief medical officer and SVP of global medical regulatory and quality at GSK.

“The more people are aware of the links between chickenpox and shingles, the sooner people can take action and discuss their concerns with their healthcare provider.”

Raising awareness about shingles, its risks, symptoms, and potential complications is key to ensuring adults have the knowledge they need to take preventative action.

“It is vital to work across sectors and disciplines to ensure that people over 50 years of age have reliable information on the risks of shingles, and help adults understand the important moments that can be missed due to this painful disease,” says Jane M Barratt PhD, the secretary general of the International Federation on Ageing.

This article was written to coincide with Shingles Awareness Week, led by GSK in collaboration with the International Federation on Ageing (IFA). The objective of Shingles Awareness Week is to raise awareness and address the lack of knowledge about the risks of shingles and severity of its complications, which can rob people from enjoying important moments in their lives.