Can Shingles Kill You? The Dangers of Complications

Shingles is a fairly common condition caused by varicella-zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 1 in 3 adults in the United States will get shingles during their lifetime.

For adults who are otherwise fairly healthy, shingles is not life threatening, though it can be quite uncomfortable.

However, when left untreated, shingles may cause complications. For certain people — such as those over the age of 65 or whose immune systems are compromised — these complications could lead to death.

This article will cover the symptoms of and risks for shingles, as well as how to spot a shingles-related health emergency.

How dangerous is shingles?

Shingles isn’t considered a dangerous health condition.

Each year about 1 million new cases of shingles are reported in the United States. Most people recover and resume their normal activities once they’re no longer infectious.

However, if shingles isn’t treated, particularly severe cases can lead to death.

People with autoimmune conditions and people over the age of 65 are at a higher risk for shingles complications.

Women who are pregnant may also be concerned if they develop shingles. You and your baby will most likely be safe. However, talk with your healthcare provider if you’re pregnant and suspect you have shingles.

How to decrease your risk of complications

Treating shingles early can help shorten the lifespan of the virus.

If you’re able to shorten the infection, you’ll decrease your risk for complications from the virus. Antiviral medication is recommended as a first line of treatment when you’re diagnosed with shingles.

Getting a varicella vaccination can help you to avoid contracting shingles and chickenpox. Even if you’ve already had shingles, a vaccination against shingles can help to prevent the virus from reactivating in your system.

Complications of shingles

The most common complication associated with shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN is long-term nerve pain that can occur in the area where your shingles rash appeared.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10 to 18 percent of people experience PHN after a shingles outbreak.

The older you are when your shingles appears, the higher your risk for long-term nerve pain.

If the virus is left untreated, your risk for other complications related to shingles increases.