Shingles results in an itchy, painful blistering rash. Most people recover within 3-5 weeks of developing the infection.

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Shingles is a viral infection that affects roughly 1 in 3 people in the United States. While it can happen to anyone who previously had chickenpox, it is more common in older people and immunocompromised individuals.

After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in nerves within the body. Reactivation of the virus causes itchy, painful, blistering rashes on a strip of skin supplied by the affected nerve. It can happen anywhere in the body but usually affects one side of the face or torso. Usually, a person will only develop shingles once in their life, but shingles can reactivate several times in some people.

Shingles typically follows a pattern as the rash progresses, blisters, crusts over, then begins to clear. Most cases of shingles last for 3–5 weeks.

In this article, we discuss how quickly a person may recover from shingles, and what treatments can help speed up the recovery process.

Share on Pinterest
DragonImages/Getty Images

In most cases, the time from when symptoms first appear to when the skin clears can take about 3–5 weeks. However, in some cases, people may recover in roughly 2 weeks.

Rashes typically appear between 1–5 days after the initial symptoms of tingling, numbness, and burning pain. Then, it takes about 7–10 days for the blisters to dry up and crust over and a few more weeks for the scabs to clear up.

Taking antiviral medications, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, can help treat shingles and shorten the length and severity of the illness. These drugs can help speed up skin healing, reduce pain, and reduce potential complications. They are most effective if a person starts taking them as soon as possible after the rash appears

Learn more about antiviral drugs here.

There is currently no cure for shingles. While it is a self-limiting disease, treatments can ease a person’s pain and discomfort, speed up recovery, and prevent complications. The American Academy of Dermatology Association advises people to see a dermatologist within 3 days of getting a rash so they can begin taking medications to reduce symptoms and prevent complications.

Doctors mainly use antiviral medicines to prevent the virus from multiplying, which can help reduce symptom severity and complications. A person may also take over-the-counter painkillers, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol), for pain. If the pain is severe, their doctors may also prescribe more potent painkillers.

In case of severe nerve pain, doctors may prescribe antidepressants and anticonvulsants, since both have actions that can ease nerve pain during an episode. These medications can also prevent postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is a potential complication of shingles that causes neuropathic pain.

Some doctors may also prescribe a short course of corticosteroids, in addition to antiviral therapy, to speed up recovery. The use of steroids in treating shingles remains controversial. However, a 2020 study reports that prednisone is safe and effective in reducing symptoms of shingles.

People with shingles can also attempt some home remedies to help ease symptoms. These include:

  • wearing loose-fitting clothes to prevent irritating the affected skin area
  • using calamine lotion or colloidal oatmeal baths to soothe pain and relieve itching
  • covering rashes with non-adherent dressings to prevent them from rubbing against surfaces

Individuals should also take care to keep a rash clean and dry to prevent it from getting infected. They can also use cool compresses several times a day to help soothe the pain and dry up the blisters.

Click here to learn more about home remedies for shingles.

It is not possible to acquire shingles from another person with the infection. However, VZV can be spread by a person with shingles and cause chickenpox in people who have not had chickenpox or have never received the chickenpox vaccine.

A person can only spread the virus through direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. People can prevent the transmission of the virus by covering their shingles rash. They can also avoid touching the rash, wash their hands often, and avoid contact with those who are at a greater risk of infection, such as immunocompromised individuals.

Vaccination is the only way to protect a person against shingles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that healthy individuals 50 years and older get Shingrix, the vaccine for shingles, which is dispensed as two doses. Aside from shingles, the vaccine can also protect them from PHN. However, Shingrix is not advisable for people who currently have shingles, or who are nursing or pregnant.

Those who tested negative for the virus should get the chickenpox vaccine.

A 2021 study on the effectiveness of Shingrix found the vaccine to be 70.1% effective in people who received two doses and 68.6% in people who received a single dose.

Certain people are at a higher risk of hospitalization for complications from shingles. About one-third of people hospitalized are those with suppressed or weakened immune systems, including those with HIV.

Read more about shingles and HIV here.

Postherpetic neuralgia

If a person’s case of shingles is not treated promptly, it can lead to serious complications, the most common of which is PHN. According to the CDC, around 10–18% of people with shingles will experience PHN. It is a debilitating, long-term nerve pain that occurs in areas where the shingles rash was, and continues for months to years after the rash clears up.

Older people are at a higher risk of having more prolonged and more severe PHN than younger people. People younger than 40 are less likely to get PHN.

Herpes zoster ophthalmicus

Some people may refer to shingles occurring near or around the eyes as herpes zoster ophthalmicus (HZO). This occurs in around 10–25% of shingles cases. Untreated HZO may lead to severe complications, including:

  • permanent vision loss and changes
  • glaucoma
  • corneal ulcers
  • scarring

Other complications

In rare cases, VZV may affect facial nerves and cause paralysis in the face. Doctors refer to this as Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

Rarely, shingles may affect motor nerves instead of sensory nerves. This may lead to weakness or palsy of the muscles supplied by the nerve.

Shingles rashes can also get infected with bacteria. Other serious complications from shingles can include hearing problems, pneumonia, brain inflammation, and death.

Shingles is a debilitating viral infection that causes painful blistering rashes to appear on the body. It occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates in the body. Typically, it takes 3–5 weeks for people to recover and the rash to fully clear.

It is more common in older adults and people with weak or suppressed immune systems. While shingles does not have a cure, treatments are available to prevent complications, ease pain, and speed up recovery. Older individuals can also receive a vaccine to help prevent shingles and related complications.