What Is Shingles?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2022

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a common viral infection that affects about 1 out of every 3 people in the United States. Its telltale sign is a painful, red rash that typically appears on one side of the face or body.1,2

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. It is called the varicella-zoster virus. Once you have chickenpox, the virus lays dormant, or “hides out,” in your body. The virus can then be reactivated by stress, certain illnesses that weaken your immune system, or certain medicines. This activation of the virus results in shingles.1-4

Who shingles affects

If you have had chickenpox, you are at risk for shingles. But not everyone who has had chickenpox will get shingles.1-4

Although anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, it is more common in older people. While experts do not know exactly what triggers the virus to activate, there are some risk factors to be aware of.1-3

You are most at risk of getting shingles if you are over 50 years old or have a weakened immune system from an illness or medical treatment.3

Signs and symptoms

Shingles affects the nerves in your body. The first sign of shingles is usually pain, burning, itching, numbness, or tingling on one side of your face or body.1-4

A few days later, a rash with small red blisters appears. These fluid-filled blisters then become open sores. This is when the shingles virus is most contagious. The sores will eventually scab over after about 7 to 10 days.1-4

Other signs and symptoms of shingles may include:1-4

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Upset stomach

Shingles can last anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks. Some people will have only mild symptoms, while others may experience more painful, severe symptoms. Most people who get shingles will only have it once in their lifetime. However, some people get shingles multiple times. This is called recurrent shingles.1-3

How shingles is transmitted

If you have already had chickenpox or have had the chickenpox vaccine, it is not possible to “catch” shingles from another person. But coming into contact with the open sores of the rash can spread the varicella-zoster virus. This can cause chickenpox in people who have not previously had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.1-3

A shingles rash should be kept covered to reduce the risk of passing the virus to at-risk people. If the sores are kept covered, the risk of infecting others is low.3

Possible complications

Shingles can lead to serious complications. At least 1 in 10 people who get shingles will develop nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN) that can last for months or even years after the shingles rash goes away. This is why early treatment is so important.1-4

In addition to PHN, other complications can include:1-4

  • Vision problems or blindness if the blisters spread to the eye
  • Skin infections if the rash blisters get infected
  • Hearing problems or balance issues
  • Temporary paralysis of the face
  • In rare cases, brain inflammation (encephalitis)

People most at risk of developing complications from shingles include:2,4

  • Pregnant people
  • Newborns, especially premature babies
  • People with weakened immune systems

If you have blisters anywhere on your face and near the eyes, tell your doctor immediately so they can start treating you.3

How to treat shingles

While there is no cure for shingles, it can be treated. Antiviral drugs are used to help your body get rid of the virus. These antivirals also help reduce the chances of severe or prolonged symptoms like PHN.1-4

The sooner you start antiviral treatment, the more effective it will be. So, as soon as you notice a rash appear, contact your doctor right away.1,2

Rash blisters should be kept clean, dry, and covered until they are completely gone. Wet compresses may help reduce itching.1,2

Do not use any creams or gels on the blisters unless they are recommended by your doctor. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen can help reduce pain and discomfort.2

How to prevent shingles

Shingles may be prevented with the Shingrix vaccine. This vaccine is safe and easy to get. It has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for adults age 50 and older. It has been shown to be over 90 percent effective at preventing shingles.2-4

The Shingrix vaccine is not meant to treat an active case of shingles, only to help prevent it. You are eligible to get the Shingrix vaccine if you:2-4

  • Are 50 years old or older
  • Have previously had chickenpox, the chickenpox vaccine, or shingles
  • Received the prior shingles vaccine, Zostavax
  • Have a health condition that weakens your immune system
  • Do not remember ever having chickenpox

While extremely effective at helping prevent shingles, the shingles vaccine cannot prevent all shingles cases. But it can help shorten the length and severity of the illness, as well as reduce the risk for PHN. Studies show that Shingrix is safe, though you may have temporary side effects from getting the shots. If you have questions about side effects from Shingrix, talk to your doctor.2,4,5

When to see a doctor

If you have any symptoms that you think might be shingles, contact your doctor right away. They can help get you started on a treatment plan.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.