For adults in overall good health, shingles is not life threatening, though it can be uncomfortable. While rare, some people may have serious complications, such as infections, that can be fatal.

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 1 in 3 adults in the United States will get shingles during their lifetime.

If left untreated, shingles may be more likely to cause complications. For certain people — such as those over the age of 65 or whose immune systems are compromised — these complications could potentially be serious or life threatening.

This article covers the risks associated with shingles and how to identify a shingles-related health emergency.

Shingles isn’t considered a dangerous health condition.

Most people who get shingles recover and resume their usual activities.

In some people, shingles can cause dangerous complications, and severe cases could potentially be fatal. People who may have an increased risk of complications include:

Pregnant people who get shingles may require treatment with antiviral medications to avoid complications. However, shingles is unlikely to affect the baby. It’s still best to talk with a healthcare professional if you’re pregnant and suspect you have shingles.

How to decrease your risk of complications

Treating shingles early can help reduce the length and severity of your infection. But they are most effective when taken soon after the rash appears.

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

Getting a varicella vaccination can help you to avoid contracting shingles and chickenpox. Even if you’ve already had shingles, getting the shingles vaccine can help prevent the virus from recurring.

Learn more about shingles reactivation.

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% of people experience PHN after getting shingles.

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 may also increase.

Other possible complications can include:

If left untreated, some complications of shingles can be fatal. Pneumonia, encephalitis, stroke, and bacterial infections can cause your body to go into shock or sepsis.

The most effective way to prevent shingles complications is to get the shingles vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved one vaccine to prevent shingles.

The FDA approved the Shingrix vaccine in 2017, and it may protect you for more than 5 years.

If you’re over 50, experts recommend you get the Shingrix vaccine. Over 99% of U.S. adults born in 1980 or before have had exposure to the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. Even if you can’t remember having chickenpox, experts still recommend getting the vaccine as a preventive measure.

You can get Shingrix even if you’ve previously received the Zostavax shingles vaccine. Zostavax is no longer approved for use in the United States.

Adults over 19 with weakened immune systems may also get the Shingrix shingles vaccination. Learn more about vaccination recommendations.

Shingles isn’t a serious condition for most people who get it.

Within 3 to 5 weeks, the shingles rash should start to fade. Prescription medication, resting, and drinking plenty of water can help you heal faster.

If you don’t heal quickly, you’re at a higher risk for complications from shingles. People more likely to be affected by these complications include those:

  • with compromised immune systems
  • who take medications that affect the immune system
  • who are over the age of 65
  • who are pregnant

If you suspect you have shingles, speak to a healthcare professional right away to create a treatment plan.