What Is Shingles (Herpes Zoster Virus)?

Why It Happens and How to Prevent It

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Herpes zoster, also known as shingles, is a viral disease characterized by the outbreak of painful, blistering rash that occurs when a dormant chickenpox infection suddenly reactivates.

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella virus (VZV), which belongs to the same family of viruses that causes genital and oral herpes. After a chickenpox infection, the virus will go into a period of latency where it lies dormant in certain nerves of the body. In later life, the virus can spontaneously reactivate and cause the painful, blistering condition recognized as shingles.

There are over one million cases of shingles in the United States every year.

Shingles (herpes zoster) on man's chest (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herpes_zoster_chest.png)

Fisle / Wikimedia Commons

Types of Shingles

When a person gets chickenpox, their immune system will eliminate VZV from most locations of the body. The virus will, however, remain dormant within a cluster of nerve cells called a spinal ganglion (a.k.a. spinal nerve root).

When reactivation occurs, the outbreak will develop on a dermatome—an area of skin serviced by that specific spinal nerve.

There are a total of 30 spinal nerve roots with a corresponding dermatome on either side of the body. These are broadly categorized as:

  • Cervical nerves, serving the head, neck, shoulders, collarbone, upper back, arms, hands, and fingers
  • Thoracic nerves, serving the upper chest, back, upper forearm, upper abdomen, and lower abdomen
  • Lumbar nerves, servicing the lower back, buttocks, hips, inner thighs, knees, lower legs, and tops of the feet
  • Sacral nerves, servicing the lower back, back of the legs, buttocks, genitals, heels, and outer toes
  • Coccygeal nerves, servicing the area around the coccyx (tailbone)

In addition to the cutaneous (skin) herpes zoster, shingles can also cause:

Shingles Symptoms

Herpes zoster causes the formation of a painful blistering rash. The rash usually appears on one area of the skin on one side of the body (i.e., unilaterally).

Symptoms of shingles tend to progress as follows:

  • The initial onset of pain, burning, numbness, tingling, or sensitivity on a specific part of the body
  • The appearance of red rash a few days after the pain
  • The development of fluid-filled blisters that rupture and crust over

The appearance of a shingles rash is frequently accompanied by itchiness, fever, headache, fatigue, and sensitivity to light. Less commonly, shingles pain can develop without any rash.

Most cases of shingles last for three to five weeks.


For some people, shingles pain can persist for many months and even years. This type of pain is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It is a chronic condition that can significantly affect a person's quality of life.

People who develop herpes zoster ophthalmicus commonly experience eye redness, eye pain, and light sensitivity, and, in severe cases, vision loss.

Those with herpes zoster oticus may experience facial palsy, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), vertigo, and hearing loss.

People who are severely immunocompromised, such as those with advanced HIV, may experience shingles that extends beyond the affected dermatome to adjacent skin and organs, like the brain and liver. When this occurs, shingles can be potentially lethal.


Although scientists know that shingles is caused by the reactivation of VZV, they are less clear as to why the virus reactivates and what factors bring the virus out of a prolonged period of latency.

Diminished immunity is largely believed to be the cause. People with a normally functioning immune system can usually keep the virus in check. If the immune system is suppressed, the virus is more likely to reactivate and cause an outbreak.

This may largely explain why people over 50, who often have less robust immune systems than younger people, account for half of all shingles cases in the United States.

The risk of herpes zoster increases with age. By age 85, roughly 50% of people will have had at least one shingles outbreak in their lifetime.

Even so, younger adults and even children are known to experience shingles. While the cause is often related to immunosuppression or immunosuppressive therapies, some outbreaks appear entirely idiopathic (without any known cause).


Shingles can often be diagnosed by symptoms alone given the characteristic pattern and appearance of the blistering rash.

With that said, zosteriform herpes simplex (a form of herpes simplex) can mimic shingles. It can differentiated with a blood test called an IgM antibody test or a skin test called a Tzanck smear. If needed, a scraping of tissue can be sent to the lab for identification using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which amplifies viral DNA.

If in doubt, the healthcare provider may explore other possible causes in their differential diagnosis, including:


There is no cure for shingles, but the early use of antiviral drugs—ideally within the first 72 hours of the appearance of symptoms—may be able to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. There is even evidence, albeit weak, that it may help reduce the risk of postherpetic neuralgia as well.

The antivirals commonly use to treat shingles include:

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

After 72 hours, the benefits of antiviral therapy tend to drop significantly.

Pain can be controlled with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), topical numbing agents (like lidocaine or capsaicin), or prescription medications like Elavil (amitriptyline) and Neurontin (gabapentin).


Shingles can be prevented with a vaccine called Shingrix. Approved for use in 2017, the shingles vaccine is delivered by injection into the upper arm in two doses separated by two to six months.

Shingrix is recommended for all adults 50 and older even if they have received the previous shingles vaccine (called Zostavax) or had shingles in the past.

Side effects include injection site pain, redness, and swelling as well as fatigue, headache, body aches, and nausea. Most side effects are relatively mild and tend to resolve within a day or two.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two doses of Shingrix are 90% effective in preventing shingles.


Some people find it difficult to cope with the pain of a shingle outbreak. Even the rubbing of clothes against the blistering rash can cause extreme pain, making it difficult to concentrate, sleep, or carry on with daily activities.

Here are some tips that can help you deal with the aggravation and discomfort of shingles:

  • Apply a cool washcloth to blisters to ease the pain.
  • Apply an ice pack to the rash. Limit treatment to 15 to 20 minutes several times a day, and always make sure there is a barrier (like a towel) between the ice and your skin.
  • Wear loose, breathable fabrics.
  • Take a cooling oatmeal bath to help reduce inflammation.
  • Gently apply calamine lotion to affected tissues.
  • Take your mind off the discomfort by listening to music, watching TV, reading, taking a walk, or practicing mind-body therapies.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one get shingles, it is important to respond quickly so that antiviral therapy can be prescribed. If your healthcare provider is not available, do not hesitate to access an urgent care facility or telehealth services. Most providers can authorize and prescribe treatment based on the appearance of the outbreak and a quick review of your medical history.

12 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. Kennedy P, Gershon A. Clinical features of varicella-zoster virus infectionViruses. 2018;10(11):609. doi:10.3390/v10110609

  3. Nair PA, Patel BC. Herpes zoster. In: StatPearls [Internet].

  4. Whitman PA, Atigun OO. Anatomy, skin, dermatomes. In: StatPearls [Internet].

  5. Pitton Rissardo J, Fornari Caprara AL. Herpes zoster oticus, ophthalmicus, and cutaneous disseminated: case report and literature reviewNeuro-Ophthalmology. 2019;43(6):407-410. doi:10.1080/01658107.2018.1523932

  6. Hadley GR, Gayle JA, Ripoll J, et al. Post-herpetic neuralgia: a reviewCurr Pain Headache Rep. 2016;20(3):17. doi:10.1007/s11916-016-0548-x

  7. Tuft S. How to manage herpes zoster ophthalmicusCommunity Eye Health. 2020;33(108):71-72.

  8. Jianbo W, Koshy E, Mengting L, Kumar H. Epidemiology, treatment and prevention of herpes zoster: a comprehensive reviewInidan J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2018;0(0):0. doi:10.4103/ijdvl.ijdvl_1021_16

  9. Chen N, Li Q, Yang J, Zhou M, Zhou D, He L. Antiviral treatment for preventing postherpetic neuralgia. Cochrane Database System Rev. 2014;1:1465-858. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006866.pub3

  10. GlaxoSmithKline. Package insert - Shingrix.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What everyone should know about the shingles vaccine (Shingrix).

  12. National Institute on Aging. Shingles.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.