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Quick Facts

Shingles

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Mar 2020| Content last modified Mar 2020
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After you've had chickenpox, the virus that caused it stays in your body all your life. If the virus becomes active again, you get shingles.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash of fluid-filled blisters.

  • If the chickenpox virus becomes active, it travels to your skin where it causes painful sores

  • Doctors don’t know what causes the virus to become active again, but it sometimes happens when medicines or other illnesses weaken your immune system

  • Adults ages 50 and older and people with a weakened immune system are more likely to get shingles

  • You usually get shingles only once

  • Medicines can’t cure shingles, but antivirals (medicines that stop viruses) and pain medicine may help you feel better

  • A vaccine can prevent shingles

Go to a doctor right away if you think you have shingles, because treatment works best when started early.

What causes shingles?

After you get over chickenpox, the virus remains in your nerve roots, near your spine. Sometimes the virus becomes active again and causes a rash (shingles). The rash develops on the part of your skin connected to the infected nerve root.

Because chickenpox is caused by the herpes zoster virus, shingles is sometimes called "zoster."

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles may start with pain, tingling, or itching in a small area of skin on one side of your body. Often this is your chest or belly area. After a few days, symptoms include:

  • Small, fluid-filled blisters in one area of your body

  • Painful areas that are sensitive when touched

  • Sometimes, headache, fever, and feeling tired

Part of a nerve in the face (facial nerve) leading to the eye and ear may also be affected by the virus causing shingles. The infection may cause pain and blisters around the eye and sometimes affects how well you can see. If the ear is affected, it may cause pain and difficulty hearing. Sometimes infection of the facial nerve will stop the muscles in your face from moving.

About 5 days after the blisters form:

  • The blisters will dry, form a scab, and may leave scars on your skin—until the scabs form you should stay away from other people to avoid spreading the virus

  • You may get a bacterial infection from scratching the blisters or from having blisters near your eyes, nose, or ears

  • You may have lasting pain after the rash disappears (postherpetic neuralgia)—this happens to about 1 in 10 people

How can doctors tell if I have shingles?

Doctors can tell you have shingles by asking about your symptoms and examining your rash. Sometimes they'll take a scraping of the blister or a sample of the fluid inside the blister to examine in the lab.

How do doctors treat shingles?

Doctors will:

  • Prescribe antiviral medicine to lessen your symptoms—these medicines work best when started early, before your blisters form

  • Prescribe pain medicine

  • Have you put a wet cloth on your rash to lessen pain and itching

  • Tell you to avoid scratching the blisters to prevent infection

  • Send you to an eye or ear doctor if your shingles is near your eye or ear

How can I prevent shingles?

Vaccines can prevent chickenpox and shingles.

  • Most children get 2 chickenpox shots as part of their routine set of vaccines—at age 12 to 15 months and again at age 4 to 6 years

  • If you’re a teen or adult who hasn’t had chickenpox or the vaccine, ask your doctor about getting the vaccine

Get the shingles vaccine:

  • Most people age 50 or older should get a shingles vaccine, even if they've already had chickenpox or shingles

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