Shingles is a viral infection that appears as painful rashes anywhere on the body, including the scalp. It may cause discolored patches of skin on the scalp with bumps or blisters that eventually form scabs.

Approximately 1 out of 3 people in the United States develop shingles during their lifetime. Shingles mostly affects the chest or torso but can appear anywhere on the body. The same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus, is also responsible for causing shingles.

As the rash progresses, blistering can occur. People may experience other symptoms accompanying the rash, such as burning, tingling, and fatigue. Early diagnosis means a doctor can prescribe antivirals and certain medications to help manage symptoms.

This article will discuss what shingles on the scalp looks like, other symptoms it can cause, and how to prevent it.

A person looking in the mirror and checking shingles on their scalp-1.Share on Pinterest
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Typically infection with shingles leads to a rash. It goes through three stages and the scalp may look different.

Pre-eruptive stage

No rash is visible yet. Before the appearance of the rash on the scalp, many people experience tingling, redness, or pain in the area.

Eruptive stage

The skin develops reddish patches with some bumps appearing, but this stage is brief. Eventually, small blisters appear within hours or days.

The blisters generally cluster together, and the rash appears as bands across the affected area.

After a few days, the blisters dry up, leading to the formation of yellowish scabs. Scratching the scalp can cause the blisters to burst, and a person may be more susceptible to bacterial infections or scarring.

Shingles appears differently on different skin tones. Typically, it appears red on lighter skin, purple on dark brown skin, or even grayish on darker skin.

For most people, shingles lasts for about 3 to 5 weeks.

Post-eruptive stage

In some people, even after the rash disappears, the pain remains. It can lead to a condition known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).

PHN can last for weeks, months, or even years and mostly occurs in older people.


The most common symptom of shingles is painful, blistering rashes. Other symptoms that accompany the rash include:

Learn more about the symptoms of the early stages of shingles.

Reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus causes shingles.

When the varicella-zoster virus first infects someone, it leads to a chickenpox infection. Once the infection resolves, the virus can remain undetectable and dormant in the body.

However, a weakening of the immune system can result in the reactivation of the virus, which can move and infect the skin again, only causing shingles this time.

Certain risk factors can increase a person’s chances of experiencing shingles, for example:

  • having advanced age, the risk of getting shingles is most common among people aged 50 years or older
  • having a weakened immune system as a result of the following:
    • HIV
    • certain cancers, such as lymphoma and leukemia
    • taking certain medications, such as steroids or immunosuppressants

Doctors diagnose shingles mostly by a visual assessment. This is because the typical rash and accompanying pain is the main sign of shingles.

Doctors also take a medical history and enquire about other symptoms a person may be experiencing.

Laboratory testing can help confirm the diagnosis. Taking a sample of the affected area — for example, by scraping some fluid from the blisters — can help a doctor determine if the varicella-zoster infection is present. Bloodwork may also be beneficial for detecting the infection.

There is currently no cure for shingles. However, early treatment with antiviral medications can speed up healing and relieve severe pain.


A few medications that might be useful against shingles include:

Other approaches

Some alternative approaches that can help people feel better are:

  • applying a cool washcloth over the affected area of the scalp
  • applying calamine lotion to soothe the scalp
  • using a mild, fragrance-free shampoo
  • avoiding scratching the scalp
  • taking a bath with lukewarm water
  • getting plenty of rest
  • eating a healthy diet
  • avoiding stress

It is important to cover blisters, as the fluid within them contains the live varicella-zoster virus. If a person has never had chickenpox or shingles and encounters blister fluid, they may contract the virus.

However, they are likely to develop chickenpox rather than shingles.

Learn more about how to cover the rash.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends those over the age of 50 and those over the age of 19 with weakened immunity take the Shingrix vaccine. This course involves two doses.

The vaccine is approximately 90% effective in preventing shingles and PHN.

Learn more about some measures a person can take to prevent the spread of shingles.

Shingles is a skin condition that leads to the development of painful, blistering rashes anywhere on the body, including the scalp. People experiencing symptoms should consult a doctor, who may prescribe antivirals to shorten the duration and reduce the severity of symptoms.

In most people, shingles do not last for more than 5 weeks. Several other treatment options are available that can reduce shingles-associated pain.

People with weakened immune systems or those above 50 years of age should consider taking the Shingrix vaccine to prevent shingles and any complications of the condition.