Shingles

Also known as herpes zoster (HZ)

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster (HZ), is a painful rash that's caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is also responsible for chickenpox.

Besides the vesicles (fluid-filled sacs) and discomfort that are the main symptoms of shingles, many people continue to have persistent pain after the rash heals—a condition called ​postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Shingles can be treated with antiviral medications and symptom-relief strategies, but even more important to managing shingles is prevention. People who receive the chickenpox vaccine will avoid shingles because they are protected from infection by varicella in the first place. Your risk for getting shingles increases as you get older.1 For healthy adults age 50 and over, there are two vaccines available.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is shingles contagious?

    The shingles condition itself is not contagious, but the varicella-zoster virus is contagious. Once the shingles rash develops on the skin, it's possible to pass on the virus (but only to a person who hasn't been vaccinated against chickenpox) until the blisters crust over and form scabs—anywhere from 10 to 14 days. After that point, the risk of passing on the virus is much lower.

  • What does shingles look like?

    The classic shingles rash presents in the second phase of shingles (eruptive phase) as a cluster of tiny, pimple-like blisters that are painful, red, tingly, and itchy. The rash is usually localized to one strip of skin on only one side of the body; not scattered over the entire body as with chickenpox. The rash area may be itchy and/or painful for weeks or months after the vesicles scab.

  • What causes shingles?

    Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which lies dormant after the first infection with chickenpox. Why the virus reappears isn't well understood, but one of the main factors is a weakened immune system. A long-standing hypothesis points to stress as a major cause, but current research doesn't fully support this theory.

  • How long does shingles last?

    In general, a case of shingles may last for three to five weeks. The first (prodromal) phase is marked by fatigue, fever, and tingling pain on one side of the body. A few days later, the rash will appear. The rash will turn into fluid-filled vesicles a few days after that, then scab over in 10 to 14 days. The scabs will likely clear up in a couple of weeks, unless they're reopened by scratching.

  • Can you get shingles more than once?

    Most people will only get shingles once, but because the virus stays dormant in the body, it is technically possible to get shingles a second time. This is rare, however. The best way to prevent shingles from occurring again is to get the shingles vaccine, which can help prevent a recurrence even if you've already had shingles.

  • How is shingles treated?

    The primary aim of treatment is to prevent more vesicles from forming in order to stop virus replication in its tracks and prevent more severe pain. Prescription oral antiviral drugs are necessary and most effective within 72 hours of an outbreak. Home remedies for symptom relief are also helpful: oatmeal baths for itching, Tai Chi for gentle exercise, and plenty of rest and fluids.

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Page Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What everyone should know about shingles vaccines. Updated May 31, 2018.

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  5. National Institutes for Health. National Institute on Aging. Shingles. Updated October 29, 2018.

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  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles treatment. Updated July 1, 2019.

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  9. Naveen KN, Pradeep AV, Kumar JS, Hegde SP, Pai VV, Athanikar SB. Herpes zoster affecting all three divisions of trigeminal nerve in an immunocompetent male: a rare presentation. Indian J Dermatol. 2014;59(4):423. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.135548

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