How Long Does Shingles Last?

Shingles is a painful rash also called herpes zoster. One in 3 people will develop shingles at some point in their life. The same virus that causes chicken pox, varicella-zoster virus, causes shingles. Once someone has chicken pox, the virus can continue to live in some nerve cells. As people age or have weakened immune systems, the varicella-zoster virus can reemerge and cause shingles.

Shingles can cause a painful rash that usually affects only one side of the body or face. Rarely are there associated systemic (body-wide) symptoms such as fever, headache, malaise, or fatigue. There is no cure for shingles, but there are treatments available that will lessen the amount of time you have the rash, reduce symptoms, and minimize the likelihood of developing complications.

The rash associated with shingles usually crusts over within seven to 10 days for people with a healthy immune system, but scarring and/or changes in skin pigmentation can last for months to years.

This article discusses shingles treatment, along with managing symptoms and complications.

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Treatment

The mainstay treatment for shingles is a prescription antiviral medication. Antivirals work best when taken as soon as possible after the shingles rash develops, ideally within three days.

Antivirals will help reduce the severity and length of the infection, and minimize the chance of developing a serious complication from shingles. The three antivirals most commonly prescribed are:

  • Zovirax (acyclovir)
  • Valtrex (valacyclovir)
  • Famvir (famciclovir)

Other treatments for shingles include over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as pain relievers like Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen). Prescription pain medication may be available through a healthcare provider for severe pain.

Home treatments for shingles include calamine lotion, cool compresses, and colloidal oatmeal baths. These therapies may help alleviate itching and discomfort from the shingles rash.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends following these steps to treat the rash until it heals:

  • Wash the rash area with fragrance-free soap.
  • Once dry, put a thin layer of Vaseline (petroleum jelly) on the rash.
  • Cover the rash with a nonstick sterile bandage.

Be sure to wash your hands after touching the rash.

If the pain is severe, a healthcare provider may prescribe a corticosteroid to help reduce rash inflammation and pain.

Managing Symptoms

The first step in managing the symptoms of shingles is to see a healthcare provider within the first three days from when symptoms start. Beginning treatment within those first three days will greatly improve symptoms.

Shingles causes a blister-like rash that covers one side of the abdomen and can develop on the face. Skin changes caused by shingles can last for months to years. To help manage the symptoms, take prescribed medication and use home treatments as needed.

Self-care is an important step in managing the symptoms. Self-care includes:

  • Resting
  • Eating healthy meals
  • Using distraction to keep your mind off of the symptoms (TV, music, or board games)
  • Minimizing stress
  • Wearing clothes that are breathable and loose

Complications

Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) refers to pain that lasts beyond three months after the initial shingles rash. The pain can be described as burning, pruritic (itchy), sharp, or stabbing and can be constant or intermittent. There also usually is allodynia, which is pain that is caused by something that otherwise would not cause pain, such as light touch. PHN can last anywhere from a few weeks to years.

People with weakened immune systems are more likely to have shingles complications than other individuals.

Risk factors for developing PHN include increased age, larger rash size, and increased levels of rash pain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 10%–13% of people 60 years old and older who have had shingles, will get PHN. People under 40 years old are highly unlikely to get PHN.

Other shingles complications are:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Talk to your healthcare provider if the shingles rash looks infected (with swelling or pus), if you are still in pain after the rash goes away, or if you still feel sick after the rash goes away.

Shingles Stages

A shingles infection has three phases or stages.

Preeruptive Phase

The preeruptive phase starts at least 48 hours before there are any blisters or rash. It begins with pain or changes in skin sensation. Some people may also feel unwell, have headaches, or experience pain when looking in bright lights.

Acute Eruptive Phase

The rash usually begins with papules that then become blisters or vesicles within two to three days. The blisters then become pustular. The rash usually dries up and forms crusts within seven to 10 days at which point the rash is no longer considered contagious.

The main symptom during the acute eruptive phase is pain.

Chronic Phase

The chronic phase, marked by the occurrence of PHN, is the last phase of shingles. It's characterized by pain that can last months to years. Not everyone who has shingles will have PHN. People who are older are more likely to get PHN.

What to Expect

A healthcare provider will be able to diagnose the rash based on a physical exam and your medical history. If the healthcare provider is not sure if the rash is shingles they can have it tested.

If the diagnosis is shingles, expect to be given an antiviral prescription and suggestions on how to care for the rash at home. The first couple of weeks can be painful, don't be afraid to reach out to your healthcare provider on ways to minimize pain.

Is Shingles Contagious?

Shingles can only occur if someone has had chicken pox. Shingles is not contagious. It occurs when the immune system is weakened and the virus resurfaces, causing the shingles rash.

With that said, if someone comes into contact with the fluid from a shingles blister they could get chicken pox if they have not had the chicken pox vaccine or a chicken pox infection. They would not get shingles from contact with a shingles blister.

Preventing Shingles

The best way to prevent shingles is to get the shingles vaccine, Shingrix. This vaccine is over 90% effective at preventing shingles. Adults over 50 years of age are encouraged to get the vaccine, which comes in two separate doses.

The only infectious shingles phase is when the blisters are open. During the infectious phase, if viral material from an open blister is transmitted to a person who has never had the chicken pox infection or the chicken pox vaccine then they can become infected with chicken pox.

Summary

Shingles is an infection in which the herpes zoster virus resurfaces from a past chicken pox infection. It produces a painful rash on one side of the body, usually around the side of the abdomen.

Shingles can last for weeks to months.

A Word From VeryWell

There is no immediate cure for shingles. The best thing you can do if you suspect you have shingles is to contact your healthcare provider within three days to start antiviral treatment.

If you are 50 years of age or older, check with your healthcare provider to see if you are eligible for the shingles vaccine. Most people are eligible, even if they have already had shingles or an older version of the shingles vaccine.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is shingles curable?

    There is no cure for shingles, but there is effective treatment available. Treatment is most effective when it is begun within three days of the start of symptoms.

  • Will shingles go away on its own?

    If shingles is not treated it may go away on its own. However, there is an increased risk of developing a long-term painful condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN can last for weeks or years. Do not wait for shingles to go away on its own. There are widely available treatments to reduce symptoms and the duration of the illness.

  • What triggers a shingles outbreak?

    Shingles is caused by the reemergence of the chicken pox virus. Older adults and people with weakened immune systems are at risk of a shingles outbreak.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster).

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Shingles: overview.

  3. National Institute on Aging. Shingles.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Treating shingles.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Shingles self-care.

By Patty Weasler, RN, BSN
Patty is a registered nurse with over a decade of experience in pediatric critical care. Her passion is writing health and wellness content that anyone can understand and use.