What is shingles?


Shingles: Overview

Shingles (herpes zoster) causes pain and a blistered rash. The rash can appear anywhere on the body but will be on only one side of the body, the left or right. It will be in a band, a strip, or a small area. The pain can be very severe. Shingles can also cause tingling or itching in the area of the rash. The blisters scab over after a few days and heal in 2 to 4 weeks. Medicines can help you feel better and may help prevent more serious problems caused by shingles.

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. When you have chickenpox, the virus gets into your nerve roots and stays there (becomes dormant) long after you get over the chickenpox. If the virus becomes active again, it can cause shingles.


Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you've had chickenpox, the virus stays in your nerve tissue and can cause shingles later in life.

Shingles usually appears in a band, a strip, or a small area on one side of the face or body. It is also called herpes zoster.

Shingles is more common in older adults and people who have weak immune systems because of stress, injury, certain medicines, or other reasons.

What happens when you have shingles?

Some of the symptoms of shingles, such as headache and pain, may appear first. Then after several days or weeks, a rash may develop on one side of your body. The rash turns into fluid-filled blisters that ooze and crust over. The rash heals after a few weeks.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles symptoms happen in stages. First you may have a headache, sensitivity to light, and flu-like symptoms. Later you may feel tingling or pain in an area on your body where a rash may occur a few days later. The rash then turns into blisters.

How is shingles treated?

Shingles is treated with medicines, including antiviral medicines and medicines for pain. Treatment may help your rash heal faster and be less painful, shorten the illness, and prevent complications. Home care also can help you feel better faster. Take care of skin sores, and keep them clean. Avoid picking at and scratching blisters.

How can shingles be prevented?

A shingles vaccine helps prevent shingles. It is recommended for adults 50 and older and for adults 19 and older with a weakened immune system. If you have shingles, avoid contact with infants and anyone who's pregnant or has never had chickenpox. Also avoid anyone who is ill or has a weak immune system.

How is shingles diagnosed?

Doctors can usually diagnose shingles when they see an area of rash on the left or right side of your body. If the diagnosis isn't clear, your doctor may order tests on cells from a blister. If your doctor thinks that you have shingles, your doctor may not wait for tests before treating you.

How can you care for yourself when you have shingles?

  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. Antiviral medicine helps you get better faster.
  • Try not to scratch or pick at the blisters.
  • Keep the blisters moist until they heal over. One way to do this is to cover them with a thin layer of petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, and a nonstick bandage.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Avoid close contact with people until the blisters have healed. It is very important for you to avoid contact with anyone who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. Young babies and anyone who is pregnant or has a hard time fighting infection (such as someone with HIV, diabetes, or cancer) are especially at risk.

What increases your risk for shingles?

Things that increase your risk for getting shingles include:

  • Having had chickenpox. You must have had chickenpox to get shingles.
  • Being older than 50.
  • Having a weakened immune system due to another disease, such as diabetes or HIV infection.
  • Experiencing stress or trauma.
  • Having cancer or getting treatment for cancer.
  • Taking medicines that affect your immune system, such as steroids or medicines that are taken after an organ transplant.

Shingles location

Close-up of shingles rash and where shingles usually appears: top half of the head, neck and shoulders, and the belly or back area

The shingles rash can appear anywhere on the body but will only be on one side of the body, the left or right. It will be in a band, a strip, or a small area. Before the rash occurs, there is usually itching, tingling, or pain in that area. The rash turns into blisters after several days.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus. Shingles usually appears in a band or small area on one side of the face or body. It's most common in older adults and people who have weak immune systems.

What causes shingles?

Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox becomes active again in your body. After you've had chickenpox, the virus "sleeps" (is dormant) in your nerve roots. In some people, the virus "wakes up" when disease, stress, or aging weakens the immune system. Some medicines may trigger the virus.

What problems can happen when you have shingles?

Some people will have other problems from shingles. These can include:

  • Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is pain that does not go away for months or even years after shingles heals.
  • Disseminated zoster. This is a blistery rash that spreads over the body and can affect the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, joints, and intestinal tract.
  • Cranial nerve problems. If shingles affects the nerves that start in the brain (cranial nerves), problems may include:
    • Inflammation, pain, and loss of feeling or vision in one or both eyes.
    • Intense ear pain and a rash around the ear, mouth, face, neck, and scalp.
    • Inflammation, and possibly blockage, of blood vessels, which may lead to stroke.
  • Bacterial infection of the blisters.
  • Muscle weakness in the area of the infected skin before, during, or after the episode of shingles.

Delaying or not getting medical treatment may increase your risk for problems.

Shingles: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a new or higher fever.
  • You have a severe headache and a stiff neck.
  • You lose the ability to think clearly.
  • The rash spreads to your forehead, nose, eyes, or eyelids.
  • You have eye pain, or your vision gets worse.
  • You have new pain in your face, or you can't move the muscles in your face.
  • Blisters spread to new parts of your body.
  • You have symptoms of infection, such as increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • The rash has not healed after 2 to 4 weeks.
  • You still have pain after the rash has healed.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.