Shingles is typically characterized by a painful, blistering rash on one side of the face or torso. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of long-term complications.

The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. It’s called the varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

VZV stays dormant in your body even after you recover from chickenpox. The chickenpox virus can reactivate years or even decades later, but it’s not understood why.

When this happens, a person will develop shingles.

Shingles typically start in one part of your face or body, usually in your abdominal area. The most common symptoms include:

You might also experience hypersensitivity or an excessive reaction to touch in the affected area. A rash will likely begin to form within the first couple of days.

Sharp, stabbing pain may develop and intensify as the condition progresses.

Although not every person with shingles will experience them, early symptoms can include:

  • body aches
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • headache
  • nausea
  • overall weakness (malaise)

A healthcare professional can typically diagnose shingles based on these symptoms. They may prescribe medication to speed up recovery and reduce the risk of long-term complications.

Within 5 days, a shingles rash will appear on one side of your body, often in a single characteristic band around one side of the torso or face.

The painful rash will then form itchy or burning blister-like sores filled with a clear fluid. The blisters will scab over in 7–10 days. They’ll gradually grow smaller before disappearing.

Shingles rash symptoms commonly last between 2–4 weeks.

Consult a healthcare professional as soon as you suspect shingles.

Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), or famciclovir (Famvir) can make symptoms less severe and shorten the length of the illness if taken early.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can help lessen discomfort. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths can also be helpful to reduce itching.

Are shingles contagious?

Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. But someone who has never had chickenpox can contract VZV from a person with active shingles. They would then develop chickenpox, not shingles.

Only direct contact with fluid from shingles blisters can transmit the virus. Keep shingles blisters covered with a fluid absorbent dressing to prevent others from contracting the virus.

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The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN causes severe pain even after the shingles rash clears.

People ages 60 years and older who don’t seek treatment are more likely to develop PHN.

Shingles can also have an adverse effect on your vision if the virus infects the eye’s structures.

In rare cases, shingles that affect a nerve near your ear can lead to facial paralysis and hearing loss.

Other rare complications include a lung infection (pneumonia) and brain inflammation (encephalitis), which can be fatal.

If health complications such as PHN develop due to shingles, further treatment is necessary. Treatment for PHN can last months, years, or may require lifelong medical care.

If you don’t experience any complications while you have shingles, you can usually expect to make a full recovery.

Some research suggests that shingles recurrence is more common than previously thought, however this data is limited.

It’s thought that your risk of developing shingles a second time is about the same as your initial risk of developing shingles at all.

Childhood immunizations routinely include a varicella vaccine to prevent chickenpox. The vaccine also helps to reduce the number of people who develop shingles later in life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reccomend additional vaccination for adults who are immunocompromised or are ages 50 or older.

In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine).

The vaccine requires two doses 2–6 months apart and provides strong protection against shingles and PHN.

As of November 18, 2020, the vaccine Zostavax is no longer available for use in the United States.

Can anyone develop shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles.

According to the CDC, about 1 in 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. However, some people are more likely to develop shingles than others.

It is estimated that half of all cases of shingles occur in people aged 60 years and older. Other groups prone to developing shingles include:

  • people with HIV
  • people undergoing cancer treatments
  • people who have had organ transplants
  • people experiencing a lot of stress

What triggers a shingles outbreak?

The varicella-zoster virus stays in the body after you’ve already had chickenpox. What causes the virus to reactivate isn’t always clear, though a few possible triggers have been identified.

This includes acute or chronic illness, medications that affect the immune system, and stress.

What can be mistaken for shingles?

At first glance, the symptoms of shingles might be similar to those of a few other conditions. This includes conditions like herpes simplex, folliculitis, eczema, or thrush.

You need an examination by a doctor to identify what’s causing your symptoms and determine the right treatment.

How you know if you have shingles on your back? What does it feel like?

Shingles-related pain can range from mild to severe and may feel like a dull throbbing, an uncomfortable burning sensation, or a sharp stabbing.

Back pain may be continuous or come and go. Your skin may also be very sensitive when you touch it.

Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox. Shingles can be painful and cause severe complications, so early detection is necessary for effective treatment.