The hallmark symptom of shingles is a painful rash that blisters. But symptoms such as tingling, pain, fever, and headache can occur before a rash appears.

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a viral infection that affects the nerves. Reactivation of the chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus, or VZV) causes shingles. VZV remains dormant in your nerves after infection.

Shingles is most common in people who are immunocompromised or over 50 years old. You can get shingles even if you were vaccinated against chickenpox or had chickenpox as a child.

There’s no cure for shingles, but early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the severity of symptoms and lower your risk of complications. Keep reading to learn how to recognize some of the early symptoms.

Around 1–2 days before a shingles rash appears, you may experience these early symptoms in the affected area:

  • skin sensitivity to touch or fabric
  • tingling
  • burning
  • pain
  • itching

You may also have these overall bodily symptoms:

  • fever and chills
  • extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • upset stomach

What a shingles rash looks like

At first, a shingles rash may look like small, red bumps or spots. These spots will appear on one side of the body following the path of the affected nerve. The spots will soon turn into fluid-filled, oozing blisters.

The skin underneath the blisters will look pink or red if you have white or light skin. Black or brown skin may take on a purplish hue or have no discoloration.

The blisters typically crack open, bleed, and start to scab over within 7–10 days.

To prevent infection, avoid scratching or picking at the scabs. They will fall off on their own within 2–4 weeks.

Where shingles rashes occur

Unlike chicken pox, which can affect your entire body, a shingles rash usually erupts only on one side. You can get shingles anywhere, but the most common sites are the torso or the face.

If you have shingles on your torso, the painful rash it causes may wrap around one side of your body, from your stomach or chest to your spine.

If you have shingles on your face, it may affect the forehead, eye area, mouth, and ears.

During an active shingles outbreak, you may experience these symptoms in addition to a painful rash:

  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • fever
  • stomach pain
  • nausea and vomiting

You may confuse shingles for other conditions, especially at first. Once the shingles rash fully forms, its location and one-sided appearance may be enough to rule out other diagnoses.

Shingles can sometimes be mistaken for:

It’s important to contact a healthcare professional as soon as you notice symptoms or suspect that you may have shingles. Antiviral medications are most effective if started within 3 days of rash.

A healthcare professional can provide a diagnosis and prescribe or recommend treatments to reduce your symptoms and the risk of ongoing pain and other complications.

Shingles on the face is a medical emergency because it can affect your sight or hearing. If you get shingles anywhere on your face or neck, let a healthcare professional know immediately or go to an urgent care facility.

Is shingles contagious?

Shingles is not contagious. It’s due to reactivation of the virus within your own body.

However, if you have not had chickenpox, you may get it from someone with shingles. This will only occur if you come into direct contact with fluid from the shingles rash.

What are the stages of shingles?

The first of three stages of shingles is the preeruptive phase, also known as preherpetic neuralgia. This causes early symptoms like tingling before blisters appear.

The second stage is the acute eruptive phase, characterized by a blister-filled rash. Other symptoms, like pain, may worsen and become severe.

Most people with shingles don’t enter the third stage, which is the chronic phase known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). With PHN, you experience ongoing pain and nerve symptoms after the rash and blisters have disappeared. These symptoms can last for months or even years.

Will shingles go away on its own?

Shingles resolves on its own without medical treatment. However, seeing a healthcare professional can reduce its duration, severity, and risk of complications.

Shingles is characterized by a painful, blistery rash. Early symptoms often include sensations like tingling, pain, and burning, where the rash will appear.

If you think you may be getting shingles, see a healthcare professional. They can provide an early diagnosis and recommend treatments to relieve symptoms.