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What is Shingles?

writtenByWritten by: Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

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reviewBy Reviewed by: Dr. Katalin Karolyi
Reviewer

Dr. Katalin Karolyi

Katalin Karolyi, M.D. earned her medical degree at the University of Debrecen. After completing her residency program in pathology at the Kenezy Hospital, she obtained a postdoctoral position at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Orlando, Florida.

March 21, 2021 Read Time - 6 minutes

What Causes Shingles?

The varicella-zoster virus causes shingles, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox may develop shingles later in life. Shingles is a reactivation of the dormant chickenpox virus that similarly causes a painful rash. Shingles usually appear in adults aged 50 years or older. 

A weakened immune system is what triggers the onset of shingles; stress is the most common factor that increases your risk for shingles by weakening your immune system. 

Other factors that put you at risk for shingles include:

  • Taking some types of cancer medications
  • Taking steroid medications or immunosuppressants
  • Long term stress or trauma
  • Being an organ transplant recipient
  • A weakened immune system from illnesses such as cancer, HIV, or autoimmune diseases
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Shingles Symptoms

Shingles usually develop into a painful rash in a small area on one side of the body. It is most common on your back and torso and can resemble a band around one side of your waistline. 

Most people have the following symptoms with shingles:

  • Burning sensation of the skin
  • Tingling sensation of the skin
  • Numbness
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Upset stomach, nausea
  • Headache
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Sensitive or painful skin
  • Itching
  • Moderate to severe pain

The rash generally appears as a single stripe down either side of your body. In some cases, the rash may occur on one side of your face, affecting the eyes and causing vision loss.

Is Shingles Contagious?

Yes, shingles is contagious since it can spread the virus causing chickenpox. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the virus can reactivate any time: “even children can get shingles,” and “your risk of shingles increases as you get older.” 

You cannot catch shingles; however, you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles. If you have never had chickenpox or have not received the chickenpox vaccine, avoid someone with shingles. 

If you have shingles, avoid pregnant women, people who have never contracted or been vaccinated for chickenpox, and those who have weakened immune systems. Chickenpox is highly contagious and can become severe for people who are immunocompromised.

How Do You Catch Shingles?

Shingles does not infect others directly; instead, the shingles virus can pass on chickenpox. If you have never contracted or been vaccinated for chickenpox and come in direct contact with the fluid from a shingles rash, you can get infected with chickenpox. You could then develop shingles later on in life. 

The risk of spreading shingles to people who have not gotten chickenpox is low if you cover the rash. People cannot spread the virus before the rash appears or after the rash crusts over. The virus only spreads while there are open blisters, which you can cover with gauze bandages or clothing to reduce the risk of transmission. 

You should not return to work until your rash crusts over, which generally takes seven to ten days.

How Long Does Shingles Last?

Shingles may last three to five weeks, from the time you first feel burning or tingling to the time when scabs from the blisters clear up. Blisters usually do not leave scars after they heal.

The shingles rash consists of blisters that typically scab over in seven to ten days and fully clear up within two to four weeks. Several days before the rash appears, you may experience pain, itching, or tingling in the area where the rash is about to develop. Unfortunately, some people suffer from chronic nerve pain (post-herpetic neuralgia, PHN) even after the initial symptoms fade.

Typically you can only get infected with shingles once. However, some people with poor immune systems may contract shingles more than once.

What Does Shingles Look Like?

Shingles appear as a distinctive cluster of fluid-filled blisters that form a band around one side of your body. Shingles may look different as the infection heals. When the rash first appears, it will appear on one side of the body as red clusters. Those red clusters then turn into blister-like sores with clear fluid. 

The next most common location for shingles is on one side of the forehead or around one eye. Shingles blisters usually scab over in seven to ten days and usually do not leave any scars. Pain and itching may take weeks to resolve, even after blisters heal completely. People with weakened immune systems may have blisters for a prolonged period. 

What Happens if You Let Shingles Go Untreated?

Shingles has permanent or even fatal complications if you do not seek treatment. Contact a doctor as soon as possible when the symptoms of shingles begin. Contact your doctor no later than three days after the rash appears — if you begin treatment early, some antiviral medications can help treat your symptoms.

What is the Treatment for Shingles?

Treatment for shingles includes rash relief, pain management, and antiviral medications. While there is no cure for shingles, antiviral drugs can make the infection shorter and milder. Doctors recommend starting antiviral medications as soon as symptoms begin.

Home Remedies for Shingles

Over-the-counter and home remedies for shingles include pain relievers and anti-itch lotions. Calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, and colloidal oatmeal baths treat itchiness caused by shingles. Treat blisters by applying a cool, damp cloth to help them dry out more quickly.

Shingles Vaccine

A shingles vaccine is available. The CDC recommends that healthy adults ages 50 and older get the shingles vaccine called Shingrix. The shingles vaccine requires two doses, two to six months apart. The older shingles vaccine called Zostavax is still in use for some people ages 60 and older outside of the United States. 

Avoid the shingles vaccine if:

  • You have severe allergies to any ingredient in the vaccine
  • You had a negative reaction to a previous Singrix injection
  • You have shingles now
  • You have a fever of 101° F or higher
  • Currently pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have a negative test for varicella (you should get chickenpox vaccine)

Is it Necessary to See a Doctor for Shingles?

Yes, it is best to start rash treatment as soon as possible after the shingles rash appears. Speak to a healthcare provider about the symptoms as soon as they begin. A doctor can usually diagnose shingles just by looking at the rash but can additionally take a blood or blister sample. 

You should especially see a doctor if you are experiencing pain from shingles. Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, hydrocortisone cream, and antihistamines can all help treat pain caused by shingles. 

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

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Shingles Treatment Online

Doctors can prescribe medication online to treat shingles. Antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex) can reduce shingles symptoms and promote faster healing. Corticosteroids may also treat shingles symptoms near the ears and eyes.


Read More About Shingles Online


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Shingles (herpes zoster). Accessed on February 20, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/index.html

John, A. R., & Canaday, D. H. (2017). Herpes Zoster in the Older Adult. Infectious disease clinics of North America, 31(4), 811–826. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.idc.2017.07.016

National Institute on Aging. Shingles. Accessed on February 2021, at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/shingles  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles Vaccination. Accessed on March 14, 2021 at
https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/shingles/public/shingrix/index.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fvaccines%2Fvpd%2Fshingles%2Fpublic%2Findex.html

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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