What Shingles Looks Like

Shingles is an outbreak of a rash or blisters on the skin caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox—the varicella-zoster virus. However, the two conditions are distinctly different.

Chickenpox is the primary infection from the varicella-zoster virus. It produces an uncomfortable, itchy rash, with symptoms such as fever, headache, tiredness, and loss of appetite. Shingles is the reactivation of the infection. Most people develop chickenpox as children. Shingles most often appears in adulthood.

After you’ve recovered from chickenpox, the virus migrates to the roots of your spinal and cranial nerves where it remains dormant. You most likely will not have chickenpox again. However, the virus can reappear in an adult as shingles. Known as herpes zoster (HZ), shingles occurs when the virus is reactivated in one of your nerves.

Illustration of shingles on left side of upper back

wildpixel / Getty Images

The first sign of shingles is usually a burning or stinging sensation in a band-like formation around the waist, chest, stomach, or back. You may experience itching or become incredibly sensitive to even the softest touch. The weight of bed sheets on your skin may be uncomfortable. You may also experience fatigue, fever, and headache.

After a few days or even up to a couple of weeks, the tell-tale shingles rash will appear. This rash consists of fluid-filled blisters that typically scab over within a week to 10 days. The blisters may look like chickenpox, but they are clustered together.

The shingles rash is usually in a striped shape on one side of the body or across the face, following the dermatome. The dermatome is the pattern of nerves that spread out from the affected nerve root.

Shingles can generally be diagnosed by your doctor by taking a health history and looking at your rash. In some instances, your doctor may take a sample of the fluid from one of the blisters to verify the diagnosis.

There is no cure for shingles. However, antivirals can shorten the duration and make the attack less severe, especially when taken within the first three days after the rash appears. Though shingles most often appears on the skin, it can affect any part of the body, including internal organs.

Shingles typically takes three to five weeks to progress through all of the stages of the illness. These stages can be seen below.

Blisters

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Shingles blisters

pinglabel / Getty Images

After experiencing moderate to severe stinging or burning pain, slightly reddish patches of skin with small bumps will develop in a cluster in the area of pain. These patches then turn into small blisters.

The blisters are typically filled with pus and may be itchy. This stage of shingles can last up to five days before moving to the next stage.

Scabs and Crusting

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Shingles rash scabbed over

joloei / Getty Images

In this stage, the blisters begin to dry up and scab over. The scabs turn a yellowish color and can take two to 10 days to form.

Infection

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Shingles rash

Phadungsakphoto / Getty Images

Scratching your shingles blisters can break them open, which may lead to a bacterial infection. This can lead to scarring.

Be careful when scratching the blisters. If you notice that the area becomes red or swells, see a doctor to rule out further infection.

Ophthalmic Shingles

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Shingles on face and around eye

lauraag / Getty Images

Ophthalmic shingles, or herpes zoster ophthalmicus (HZO), is a severe variant of shingles that affects 20% of people who get shingles. People who have a compromised immune system, such as those with HIV/AIDS, are at higher risk for developing ophthalmic shingles.

HZO usually appears within two to four weeks after the onset of the shingles rash. All parts of the eye can be affected.

You can develop blisters around the eye which may cause the eyelids and surrounding area to swell. The cornea can be affected as well, causing calcification (white clouds over the iris). Vascularization can cause blood vessels in the eye to become more pronounced.

Shingles “Belt”

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Shingles belt on waist

franciscodiazpagador / Getty Images

The shingles “belt” is one of the most common symptoms of shingles. The belt is a single stripe of a rash that appears either on the right or left side of the body around the trunk. This rash pattern is easily identified by doctors and aids in diagnosis of shingles.

Shingles on Dermatomes

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Shingles (herpes zoster) on man’s chest

Fisle / Wikimedia Commons

Shingles most often occurs on one dermatome. A dermatome is a branch of sensory nerves that arise out of a single spinal nerve.

Though rare, shingles can affect multiple dermatomes. This can lead to a widespread shingles rash across the body.

Healing

If you are healthy and receive treatment soon after the blisters occur, you will likely recover fairly quickly. The blisters and scabs will heal, and the pain will subside within three to five weeks.

If you are immunosuppressed, shingles can be a serious threat and you should talk to your doctor about your best treatment options to avoid further complications.

Shingles Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Female patient listens carefully to mid adult female doctor

Summary

Shingles is a painful, red, blistered rash that develops due to reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox. It usually appears in a stripe along a nerve path, called a dermatome. The blisters should scab over in a week to 10 days. The pain can take three to five weeks to subside.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you have shingles, it’s important to contact your doctor so that you can receive a proper diagnosis and timely treatment to avoid any complications.

It’s also important to note that shingles is not contagious. However, a person with shingles blisters can transmit chickenpox to someone who has never had chickenpox or is not vaccinated for chickenpox. If you have shingles, it is best to avoid others who have not had chickenpox.

The best way to avoid getting shingles is to have the chickenpox vaccine in childhood. If you have had chickenpox, you can get the shingles vaccine at age 50 or older.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Shingles information page. Updated 2021.

  2. MedlinePlus. Chickenpox | varicella. Updated 2021.

  3. Johnson RW, Alvarez-Pasquin MJ, Bijl M, et al. Herpes zoster epidemiology, management, and disease and economic burden in Europe: a multidisciplinary perspective. Ther Adv Vaccines. 2015;3(4):109-120. doi:10.1177/2051013615599151 [Published correction appears in Ther Adv Vaccines. 2016;4(1-2):32.]

  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Shingles: hope through research. Updated 2021.

  5. MedlinePlus. Shingles | herpes zoster. Updated 2021.

  6. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Shingles: overview. Updated November 21, 2019. 

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

  8. Kantaria SM. Bilateral asymmetrical herpes zosterIndian Dermatol Online J. 2015;6(3):236. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.156448