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What Is Shingles? Causes, Treatment, Complications, Prevention, And More

Written by 
Molly Burford
Reviewed by 
Rene Roberts, MD

Article at a glance

  • Shingles is a rash that impacts one side of the face or body. It is caused by the same virus that triggers chickenpox.

  • Shingles affects one in three people at some point in their lives in the United States.

  • Varicella-zoster remains dormant in the nerve cells after chickenpox. Later on, the virus can be reactivated and cause shingles.

  • The shingles vaccine is the only way to prevent shingles and complications.

  • The biggest complication from shingles is known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which can cause severe pain. 

Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a painful rash that affects one side of the face or body. Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. It is unclear what causes the varicella-zoster virus to reactivate.

Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles. In fact, one in three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime (with that risk increasing with age). As well, one’s risk of experiencing complications due to shingles becomes higher with age.

This article will explain everything there is to know about the basics of shingles, including how shingles develops, symptoms, treatment, prevention, and more.

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a condition marked by a painful rash that impacts one side of the face or body. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox virus (usually during childhood).

After someone gets chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus will remain dormant in their nerve cells. While varicella-zoster can remain inactive and never cause shingles. However, for one in three adults in the U.S., the virus can be activated and trigger shingles. It is unknown what causes this reactivation.

There is currently no cure for shingles. That said, shingles can be treated and prevented.
 

Shingles Symptoms

Symptoms of shingles include: 
 

  • A painful rash that covers one side of the face or body (most commonly in a band around the waistline)
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Burning, shooting pain
  • Tingly, itchy, and numb skin
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach

It is vital to let a doctor know of the instance of blisters on the face immediately. This is because blisters near the eyes can cause blindness or lasting eye damage. Facial blisters can also lead to hearing loss, temporary facial paralysis, or rarely encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

How Is Shingles Diagnosed?

In most cases, a doctor will diagnose shingles from a visual exam. It is important for patients who suspect shingles to see their healthcare provider no more than three days after the shingles rash has appeared.

Shingles Risk Factors

Anyone who had been infected with chickenpox is at risk for developing shingles. Other risk factors include: 
 

  • Older age: The risk of developing shingles increases with age. In fact, half of all shingles cases are in adults aged 60 or older.
  • Weakened immune system: People with weakened immune systems from conditions such as HIV are at a higher risk of shingles. Other factors that can affect the immune system include cancer, cancer treatments, getting too much sun, and organ transplant drugs. Even stress can weaken the immune system and make fighting infections more difficult for the body.

Shingles Complications

The biggest complication associated with shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is nerve pain that occurs in the same location as the shingles rash. The pain caused by PHN is linked to a number of other problems including: 

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Sleep troubles

  • Weight loss

How Is Shingles Treated?

There is no cure for shingles. However, early treatment through antiviral medications can help ease shingles symptoms and clear up blisters more quickly.

There is no cure for shingles. However, early treatment through antiviral medications can help ease shingles symptoms and clear up blisters more quickly. 

Antiviral Medications

Antiviral medications are usually administered to help shorten the length of the virus. These can include:

  • Acyclovir
  • Valacyclovir
  • Famciclovir

Over-the-Counter Pain Medications

Over-the-counter pain relievers can help ease discomfort, such as:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen

Additional Medications

Other medications, such as antibacterial medicines, may be given if you develop a bacterial infection from the virus.

Anti-inflammatory medicines like prednisone may be administered if the rash affects parts of your face, including your eyes. 

How To Prevent Shingles

The best and only way to prevent shingles and avoid the complications associated with the illness is to get the shingles vaccine (Shingrix). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults ages 50 and older receive two doses of the shingles vaccine (also known as the recombinant zoster vaccine). Immunity stays strong for the first seven years after vaccination. 

As well, it’s important for someone to get the shingles vaccination if they: 

  • Have had chickenpox, the chickenpox vaccine, or shingles

  • Had the former shingles vaccine (Zostavax)

  • Don’t remember having had chickenpox

Note: Learn more about Medicare coverage for the shingles vaccine at this resource.

Outlook For Those With Shingles

While there is no cure for shingles at this time, outbreaks of the virus typically last between 3–5 weeks, and symptoms can be managed/​treated. Most adults who develop the virus fully recover without complications.

In some cases, such as those with a weakened immune system, the rash may last for a longer period, or complications can occur. Prevention is the best case for those who are at risk.

Coping With Shingles: 7 Tips

The shingles rash and the other symptoms associated with can be very uncomfortable and painful. Below are some coping strategies for dealing with shingles:

  1. Wear Loose-Fitting Clothing

    Wearing loose-fitting clothing is more comfortable for irritated skin. Make sure the fabrics are made of natural fibers.

  2. Soothe The Skin

    Taking an oatmeal bath or applying calamine lotion can help soothe the skin.

  3. Keep The Affected Area Clean

    Make sure the shingles rash remains clean for the duration of the illness.

  4. Distract From The Pain

    Shingles pain can be difficult to deal with and distraction is key. Examples include talking to friends and family members, watching television, listening to music, reading, etc.

  5. Destress As Much As Possible

    Because stress can make the pain that comes with shingles worse, it is important to avoid stress as much as possible.

  6. Practice Proper Self-Care

    Sticking the basics of self-care such as getting enough sleep as well as eating a balanced diet will do wonders for recovering from shingles.

  7. Avoid Scratching

    Avoid scratching or picking at the shingles blisters to avoid causing an infection.

Shingles Overview: General FAQ

Is Shingles Contagious?

Being in contact with someone who has shingles will not pass on the virus. However, direct contact with the fluid from a shingles rash can spread the virus and cause people to develop chickenpox if they have not had the virus or chickenpox vaccine previously.

That said, the risk of spreading the virus is lower so long as the rash is kept covered. Other ways to avoid spreading the virus include avoiding those who have not had chickenpox or the associated vaccine previously, avoiding those who have a weak immune system, avoiding scratching and touching the shingles rash, and washing hands often.

However, always avoid contact with young children (under the age of four especially) and pregnant women. This is because children under four are not fully vaccinated against chickenpox just yet. As well, for pregnant women, unborn babies can get chickenpox because the virus can spread across the placenta.

How Long Does Shingles Last?

Most cases of shingles will last for three to five weeks.

What Is The Course Of Shingles Like?

The most common early sign of shingles is burning or tingling pain as well as numbness or itchiness on one side of the body. From there, around one to five days after these early symptoms, a red rash appears. From there, shingles blisters will occur a few days later.

Can Someone Get Shingles More Than Once?

While someone usually only develop shingles one time, it is possible for shingles to occur more than once.

Shingles Symptoms

Shingles symptoms and how to cope with them.

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