What Shingles Looks Like

Pictures of Shingles at Various Stages

Shingles, herpes zoster (HZ), is an outbreak of a rash on the skin caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). While the rash may initially look somewhat like chickenpox, shingles tends to take on a unique look as it progresses and causes clusters of blisters.

Photos of people with shingles also showcase another obvious difference: Unlike a chickenpox rash, which eventually appears all over, a shingles rash tends to occur in one single "stripe" on one side of the body.

It's important to get properly diagnosed because shingles can have serious complications in some cases.

This article discusses what shingles looks and feels like. It includes pictures of the rash both at certain stages and in particular circumstances.

Timeline of Shingles Symptoms

Shingles actually doesn't occur without a prior chickenpox infection. VZV lies dormant in nerve roots after you recover where it can reactivate years later, returning as shingles. But though they share the same viral cause, the two conditions are distinct.

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 telltale shingles rash will appear. This rash consists of fluid-filled blisters that worsen quickly. The blisters may look like chickenpox, but they are clustered together.

The shingles rash can vary in color, depending on your skin tone. On darker skin, the rash may be pink, grayish, dark brown, or even purple. On lighter skin, it will be red.

This is the stage at which VZV can be passed on to someone who has never had or been vaccinated against chickenpox.

Blisters typically scab over within a week to 10 days. Shingles typically takes three to five weeks to progress through all of its stages.

Initial Shingles Rash

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.

Early-stage shingles rash

Joel Carillet / Getty Images

Shingles Blisters

These patches quickly grow and turn into small groupings of blisters.

Shingles belt on waist

franciscodiazpagador / Getty Images

The blisters are typically filled with pus and may be itchy.

Shingles blisters

pinglabel / Getty Images

At this stage, your blisters may break open or ooze fluid. If your rash is weeping, it is important to keep it clean to avoid infection and covered to avoid giving VZV to others.

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 fluid from one of the blisters to verify the diagnosis.

This period can last up to five days.

The Shingles "Belt"

The blisters classically appear in single stripe that shows up on one side of the body (usually around the trunk) or across the face. This so-called shingles “belt” is one of the most common symptoms of shingles.

This happens because, most of the time, shingles follows on a dermatome. This is a branch of sensory nerves stemming from a single spinal nerve where the VZV has been "hiding" dormant.

Shingles (herpes zoster) on man’s chest

Fisle / Wikimedia Commons

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

This rash pattern is easily identified by doctors and aids in a diagnosis of shingles.

Though shingles most often appears on the skin, it can affect any part of the body, including internal organs.

Benefits of Treatment

There is no cure for shingles. However, antivirals can shorten the duration and make your case less severe, especially when taken within the first three days after the rash appears. Pain will likely subside within three to five weeks.

Scabs and Crusting

Shingles rash scabbed over

joloei / Getty Images

In this stage, the blisters begin to dry up and scab over. At this point, you are no longer considered contagious.

The scabs turn a yellowish color and can take two to 10 days to form.

Once the blisters heal and the scabs fall off, your skin may be slightly discolored as it continues to heal.

Special Cases

There are some key things to watch for when observing a shingles rash, as they are signs of potentially serious issues. Infection is one, rash in the eye area is another.

Infected Shingles Rash

Scratching your shingles blisters—or scabs as the rash heals—increases your risk of a bacterial infection. This can slow your healing time and even lead to scarring.

Shingles rash

Phadungsakphoto / Getty Images

Do not scratch the rash. Instead, tap your skin to satisfy the need to itch. Using over-the-counter medications like calamine lotion and taking oatmeal baths can help, too.

See a healthcare provider right away if you notice that the area becomes red, swollen, or warm to the touch.

Shingles Rash in the Eyes

Ophthalmic shingles, or herpes zoster ophthalmicus (HZO), is when the shingles rash is in and/or around the eye. It is a severe variant that affects 20% of people with the infection.

If you develop a shingles rash near your eye, contact your healthcare provider right away.

Shingles on face and around eye

lauraag / Getty Images

HZO usually appears within two to four weeks after a shingles rash starts. People who have a compromised immune system, such as those with HIV/AIDS, are at higher risk for developing this.

All parts of the eye can be affected. For example:

  • You can develop blisters around the eye that may cause the eyelids and surrounding area to swell.
  • The cornea—the transparent part over the front of the eye—can be affected, causing calcification (white clouds over the iris).
  • Blood vessels in the eye could become more pronounced; blood flow to the eye could be impacted.

To reduce your risk of long-term eye complications, contact your healthcare provider right away if you have a shingles rash on your face.

Shingles Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next appointment with a healthcare provider 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.

People with suppressed immune systems—due to medications or other illnesses—should talk to their doctor if they develop shingles.

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. This is a particular concern if you are immunosuppressed.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Where does shingles appear?

    Shingles develops on one side of the face or body. In many cases, it will appear as a single stripe along the body's left or right side. It is considered rare for shingles to become widespread across the body.

  • What does shingles feel like?

    You may feel a burning or stinging sensation in places where the rash will eventually appear. Depending on its location, the rash can be painful. In some cases, fever, headache, muscle aches, stomach pain, and vomiting may occur.

  • Can I get shingles if I already had chickenpox?

    Yes. Chickenpox is the primary VZV infection that most people get as children. After you’ve recovered, the virus migrates to the roots of the spinal and cranial nerves, where it remains dormant. Shingles occurs if the virus is reactivated, which most often happens in adulthood.

  • How is shingles treated?

    Shingles can be treated with antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famiciclovir. These medicines require a prescription from a healthcare provider. A wet compress or calamine lotion can offer relief for itching and discomfort. Pain medications can also help.

  • Is shingles contagious?

    Not exactly. You can't give someone shingles itself, but it is possible to pass the varicella-zoster virus to people who are not immune to chickenpox. In that case, the person would develop chickenpox, not shingles.

10 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.
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