Can You Die from Shingles?

About 500,000 new cases of shingles are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. You develop shingles when the varicella-zoster virus which causes chickenpox, becomes active again. While there is no treatment available for shingles, you can certainly take antiviral medications to shorten the length and severity of your symptoms. Unfortunately, 33% of patients develop severe complications, and most of these patients are the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. 

Can You Die from Shingles?

While shingles can certainly cause some serious complications, they usually are not fatal. However, it can cause life-threatening complications in elderly people. In the U.S., about 96 shingles-related deaths occur each year and almost all the deaths occur in elderly people or people with suppressed immune system. Some people say that you will die if the band of shingles crosses the midline of the body. This does not happen in reality because the virus travels from a nerve root to the skin. These nerve roots are on both sides of the spine and cover specific sections called dermatomes, but these dermatomes do not go completely around you because the nerves are on different sides of the spine.

Complications of Shingles

Can you die from shingles? No, you cannot, but you may have to deal with some of the following complications if you do not receive medical treatment.

1. Postherpetic Neuralgia

It is probably the most common complication associated with shingles, which can cause severe nerve pain along with itching. You may continue to experience itching even when the rash is gone. People with postherpetic neuralgia usually experience intermittent or constant aching, burning, stabbing, throbbing, or shooting pain. Some people may experience pain due to a change in temperature or the wind. They may also develop hyperalgesia that makes them very sensitive to pain. It usually takes 3-6 months to recover completely from this complication, but it can last up to a year in some cases. Painkillers help reduce pain and discomfort.

2. Eye Problems

You have ophthalmic shingles and have your eyes affected, you may end up developing other eye problems as well. You may develop sores and permanent scarring of the cornea or develop inflammation of the optic nerve. You are also at an increased risk of developing glaucoma in which pressure increases inside your eye. When left untreated, ophthalmic shingles can cause permanent vision loss.

3. Ramsay Hunt Syndrome

You develop this syndrome when shingles affect specific nerves in your head. In the United States, the condition affects 5 in every 100,000 people suffering from shingles. It can cause problems like hearing loss, earache, vertigo, dizziness, loss of taste, paralysis of the face, and a rash around the ear. You have to take corticosteroids and antiviral medications to treat Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Your symptoms will be less severe if you start treatment early. You are more likely to make a complete recovery if you get antiviral medication within 72 hours of experiencing symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Any delay in treatment increases the risk of developing permanent problems such as permanent hearing loss or facial paralysis.

4. Other Complications

Not receiving treatment for shingles may lead to a number of other complications as well. For instance, the rash may become infected and you may develop high temperature as a result. You may develop white patches or have scarring in the rash. Other common complications include the inflammation of the liver, lungs, spinal cord, brain, and protective membranes around the spinal cord and brain.

How to Treat Shingles

You know that the answer to "Can you die from shingles?" is no. But that does not mean you should not seek any medical treatment. You can take certain steps to help alleviate the pain and discomfort caused by shingles. For instance:

  • Be sure to take very good care of your skin sores.
  • Do not scratch blisters. Picking at them will also cause infections. Let them fall off naturally.
  • Try cool compresses to reduce discomfort or try lotions such as calamine for relief.
  • Apply baking soda or cornstarch to your sores to help them heal quickly.
  • Soak sores with tap water after they have crusted over or use Burow's solution to clean them.
  • Use topic creams to alleviate pain and inflammation but talk to your doctor before using one.


You may have to use prescription antibiotic ointments or creams if you develop a bacterial infection. Be sure to take medicines as instructed by your doctor. You can also take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce discomfort or manage pain caused by postherpetic neuralgia. Do not take any OTC pain relievers if you are already taking some type of prescription medicine. Do not take prescription pain medicine for long because they may contain acetaminophen that can be harmful. Talk to your doctor to determine the best medication to treat your condition. 

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