Key Points about Shingles

  • Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus, and occurs when the virus has been somehow reactivated, often many years after the initial infection.
  • The main symptom of shingles is a painful skin rash that can have blisters, redness, and scabs.
  • Shingles can be prevented by receiving the chickenpox vaccine as a child, or by receiving the shingles vaccine in adulthood.
  • Call your doctor as soon as possible if you are developing signs of shingles.

Overview

Shingles is a painful skin infection caused by the chickenpox virus that has been reactivated in your body, often after many years. It is characterized by a red, blistering, scabbing rash that usually occurs in patches on one side of the body.

Any person who has ever been infected with chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles. Among those who have been infected with chickenpox, people who are immunocompromised, are over the age of 50, or are highly stressed may be at an increased risk of developing shingles.

Shingles often subsides within one to two weeks, and disappears completely after two to four weeks. Doctors may prescribe antiviral medications to hasten recovery, or pain medications to manage symptoms.

Some cases of shingles can lead to a chronic nerve condition that causes severe pain. Call your doctor as soon as possible if you are developing symptoms of shingles.

Shingles causes

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is caused by the chickenpox virus, and occurs when the virus has been somehow reactivated, often many years after the initial infection. Shingles can also spread via skin-to-skin contact with the rash of an infected person who is experiencing a current outbreak.

Shingles risk factors

People who were ever infected with chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles.

Among those who have been infected, people may be at an increased risk if they:

  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Are over the age of 50
  • Experience chronic stress

Shingles symptoms

The main symptom of shingles is a skin rash that:

  • Is red, scabbing or blistering
  • Appears as a row or area of small, raised circles on one side of your body
  • Is accompanied by sharp, shooting pain
  • Begins to crust and dry after 7 to 10 days

During a shingles outbreak you may also experience:

  • A tingling sensation on the skin, likely where the rash is about to develop
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Stomach disturbance

Shingles complications

Some people who experience shingles develop postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is a chronic condition characterized by intense nerve pain that remains in the same place of the shingles infection, even after the infection has cleared.

Other complications can include:

  • Blindness, if shingles spreads to the eyes
  • Pneumonia
  • Impaired hearing
  • Encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain

Shingles prevention

Shingles can be prevented by receiving the chickenpox vaccine as a child, or by receiving the shingles vaccine in adulthood.

Shingles diagnosis

Shingles is diagnosed through a physical examination and an assessment of your symptoms. If uncertainty remains, your doctor may examine a sample of your rash tissue under a microscope.

Shingles treatment

Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to hasten recovery, and pain medications while your symptoms persist.

Home remedies can ease pain and itching as well, such as:

  • Applying a cool, wet compress to the affected areas
  • Applying calamine lotion
  • Taking a warm bath mixed with ground oatmeal

When to seek care

Call your doctor if you are developing symptoms of shingles.

Next Steps

For the duration of a shingles outbreak, take the following measures to prevent the virus from spreading:

  • Refrain from touching or itching your rash
  • Cover the affected area
  • Maintain good hand hygiene
  • Avoid close contact with premature infants, and with people who are pregnant or immunocompromised