According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS, 25 percent of adults eventually develop shingles, a condition characterized by reawakening of the virus that causes chicken pox within the nerve roots of the spine. An individual’s risk increases with age, so that, according to NINDS, a person over 60 is 10 times more likely to develop shingles than a person under 10. Many people experience flu symptoms with shingles.
Common flu symptoms with shingles include fever, headache, chills and upset stomach. Some people also develop diarrhea or sensitivity to light. Characteristic respiratory symptoms of flu such as dry cough, sore throat and runny nose do not accompany shingles. Their presence should increase suspicion for "true" flu or another respiratory infection.
Flu symptoms with shingles present around the same time as stinging, itching, burning soreness or hypersensitivity of the skin. According to Richard J. Whitely, M.D., professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine and author of the chapter, “Varicella Virus Infections,” in the 2008 edition of “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine,” these skin sensations occur on just one side of the body, usually on the torso and back between the T3 and L3 levels of the spinal cord. In some cases, these skin sensations may affect the face, buttocks or legs.
Flu symptoms with shingles precede the appearance of a one-sided blistering rash by one to five days. New blisters typically crop up over a period of three to five days. Flu symptoms usually resolve as the blisters start to scab and heal.
Doctors treat shingles with prescription antiviral drugs such as acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir. All three reduce the severity and duration of shingles symptoms, including flu symptoms due to shingles. Fever, headache and skin pain also respond to over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved a varicella-zoster virus vaccine, Zostavax, for use in people over 60 years old who have already had chicken pox. According to NINDS, the vaccine reduces the risk of developing shingles by a little more than half. Vaccinated people who develop shingles despite vaccination experience significant reductions in overall symptom severity compared to unvaccinated people.
Occasionally, shingles produces complications such as pneumonia, meningitis--inflammation of the lining of the spinal cord--and encephalitis--inflammation of the brain--that also cause symptoms similar to flu. In the case of complications, flu symptoms will appear after the skin rash, not before. Specific symptoms of pneumonia include coughs that produce clear mucous, shaking chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, stabbing pain with respiration, and sweating. Meningitis and encephalitis are accompanied by central nervous system symptoms such as decreased responsiveness, seizures and coma.
- "Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 23rd Edition;" A.S. Fauci et al.; 2008
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Meningitis and Encephalitis
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Shingles
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Shingles: Disease FAQs for Providers
- American Lung Association: Pneumonia