What is shingles?
Shingles (herpes zoster) is an infection that causes a painful rash. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. It may not cause problems for many years. But as you get older, the virus may become active again and cause shingles.
Is shingles contagious?
Shingles is not contagious. You cannot get shingles from someone else. But you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if you have direct contact with fluid from their shingles rash.
The risk of spreading the virus is low if the shingles rash is kept covered. People with shingles cannot spread the virus before their rash blisters appear or after the rash crusts.
Who is at risk for shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. But the risk of shingles goes up as you get older. Shingles is most common in people over age 50.
People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of getting shingles. This includes those who:
- Have immune system diseases such as HIV
- Have certain cancers
- Take medicines that weaken their immune system, such as steroids and medicines you take after organ transplant
Your immune system may be weaker when you have an infection or are stressed. This can raise your risk of shingles.
It is rare, but possible, to get shingles more than once.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Early signs of shingles include burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching. It is usually on one side of the body or face. The pain can be mild to severe.
Up to several days later, you will get a rash. It consists of blisters that typically scab over in 7 to 10 days. The rash is usually a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash is only on one side of the face. In rare cases (usually among people with weakened immune systems), the rash may be more widespread. It might look similar to a chickenpox rash.
Some people may also have other symptoms:
What other problems can shingles cause?
Shingles can cause other problems (complications):
- Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is most common complication of shingles. It causes severe pain in the areas where you had the shingles rash. It usually gets better in a few weeks or months. But some people can have pain from PHN for many years, and it can interfere with daily life.
- Vision loss can happen if shingles affects your eye. It may be temporary or permanent.
- Hearing or balance problems are possible if you have shingles within or near your ear. You may also have weakness of the muscles on that side of your face. These problems can be temporary or permanent.
How is shingles diagnosed?
Usually your health care provider can diagnose shingles by taking your medical history and looking at your rash. In some cases, your provider may scrap off tissue from the rash or swab some fluid from the blisters and send the sample to a lab for testing.
What are the treatments for shingles?
There is no cure for shingles. Antiviral medicines may help to make the attack shorter and less severe. They may also help prevent PHN. The medicines are most effective if you can take them within 3 days after the rash appears. So if you think you might have shingles, contact your provider as soon as possible.
Pain relievers may also help with the pain. A cool washcloth, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.
Can shingles be prevented?
There is a vaccine, called Shingrix, to help prevent shingles and its complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get the vaccine. Your provider might also recommend the vaccine if you are over 19 and have a weakened immune system. The vaccine is given in two doses.
If you have shingles, you can help prevent spreading the virus to others by:
- Staying away from:
- Keeping the rash covered
- Not touching or scratching the rash
- Washing your hands often
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Prevention and Risk Factors
- Shingles Transmission (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- What Everyone Should Know about Shingles Vaccine (Shingrix) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Shingles: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Association between viral infections and glioma risk: a two-sample bidirectional Mendelian...
- Article: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease associated with greater herpes zoster risk than...
- Article: Advances in understanding the mechanism of action of adult vaccines.
- Shingles -- see more articles
Find an Expert
- Find a Dermatologist (American Academy of Dermatology)
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Also in Spanish
- Get the Shingrix Vaccine if You Are 50 or Older (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Postherpetic neuralgia - aftercare (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Ramsay Hunt syndrome (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Recombinant Zoster (Shingles) Vaccine: What You Need to Know (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - PDF
- Shingles (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Shingles - aftercare (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish