What Is Shingles?

You can think of shingles as a one-two punch of infections. Anyone who gets it had a case of chickenpox first, often decades earlier.

These two conditions come from the same virus, called varicella zoster.

Chickenpox causes itchy blisters that might start on your back, chest, and face and spread to the rest of your body. Shingles is a rash with shooting pain. It usually shows up on one side of your body.

The rash turns into red, fluid-filled blisters. They usually dry out and crust over within 7 to 10 days.

Shingles Symptoms

  • The early signs of shingles include:
  • Fever, chills, and headache
  • Itching
  • Raised dots on your skin and redness in that area
  • Stabbing or shooting pain
  • Tingling in or under your skin
  • Upset stomach

Call your doctor quickly if you have any of these signs. There’s no cure for shingles. But treatment can lessen the chance of complications, including pain that lasts after the rash is gone, called postherpetic neuralgia.

Shingles Causes

When the varicella zoster virus gets into your body, the first problem it causes is chickenpox. You may think of it as a childhood disease, but adults can get it, too.

After chickenpox runs its course, the virus moves into the nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain, where it stays.

We don’t know why, but sometimes the virus “wakes up” and travels along nerve fibers to your skin. That’s when it lands its second punch: shingles, also called herpes zoster.

Shingles Risk Factors

A weakened immune system might wake up the virus. After you’ve had chickenpox, you’re more likely to get shingles if you:

  • Are 50 or older
  • Are under a lot of stress
  • Have cancer, HIV, or another disease that lowers your body’s defenses
  • Have had a serious physical injury
  • Take long-term steroids or other medicines that can weaken your immune system

But many people who get shingles don’t fit into any of these categories.

Shingles Complications

Shingles can have complications that last long after the rash is gone, including:

  • Brain inflammation or facial paralysis if it affects certain nerves
  • Eye problems and vision loss if your rash was in or around your eye
  • Pain that lasts long after the outbreak, called postherpetic neuralgia. It affects up to 1 in 5 people who get shingles.

Is Shingles Contagious?

Yes. You can spread the varicella zoster virus to people who’ve never had chickenpox and haven’t been vaccinated.

You’re contagious until all of the sores have crusted over. Until then, avoid pregnant women who may not have had chickenpox or the vaccine, people with weak immune systems, and newborns.

Shingles Vaccine

The FDA has approved two shingles vaccines, Shingrix and Zostavax. Shingrix is newer and is preferred over Zostavax because it’s considered more than 90% effective. The CDC recommends that people 50 and older get it, even if you’ve had shingles before. You should also get it even if you already had the Zostavax vaccine.

The vaccine is also approved for anyone over the age of 18 who are at risk for shingles because they are or will be immunodeficient or immunosuppressed because of another illness or treatment.

Shingles Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose shingles by asking about your medical history and your symptoms and by doing a physical exam. They can also test small amounts of material from your blisters.

Shingles Treatment

Antiviral drugs can help you heal faster and cut your risk of complications. They’re most effective if you take them within 3 days of the start of a rash, so see your doctor as soon as possible. You’ll probably get one of these three medications to fight the virus:

  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Treatments for shingles pain can include:

  • Anticonvulsant medicines like gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • Antidepressants like amitriptyline
  • Colloidal oatmeal baths
  • Cool compresses
  • Medicated lotion
  • Numbing medications like lidocaine
  • Over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Prescription painkillers like codeine


  2. American Academy of Dermatology: “Shingles: Overview,” “Shingles: Diagnosis and Treatment.”
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Shingles: What Is Shingles?”
  4. CDC: “Chickenpox: Complications,” “Shingles Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know,” “Shingles: Transmission.”
  5. Mayo Clinic: “Shingles: Definition.”
  6. Cleveland Clinic: “Shingles: What are the Symptoms of Shingles.”
  7. National Institutes of Health.
  8. American Academy of Family Physicians: “Shingles.”
  9. American Academy of Dermatology: “Shingles.”
  10. CDC: “Shingles vaccination.”

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