An early shingles rash may appear as flat areas of discolored skin. Symptoms typically change depending on the stage of shingles. The rash can include blistering and scabbing.

The rash typically only affects one side of the body. A person may experience symptoms before the rash appears.

After someone has had chickenpox, the virus remains in the body in a dormant (inactive) state. Sometimes, the virus can reactivate, leading to shingles. It is a painful rash, typically occurring on one side of the body.

This article explains shingles and outlines the first symptoms people may experience. It also answers some frequently asked questions about the condition.

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The symptoms of shingles tend to come in stages.

Atypical skin sensations

Before the rash appears, people may feel pain, itching, or tingling on the skin. This can happen at least 48 hours before the rash appears. The pain can be mild or intense.

People may also experience:

Doctors may call this the preeruptive stage of shingles.

Learn more about the early signs and symptoms of shingles.

The rash appears differently on darker skin tones than on lighter skin tones. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, the rash can often be red, but it can be harder to see on darker skin tones.

When the rash does appear, it may show as macules and eventually become vesicles. Macules are flat, discolored areas of skin that can resemble a burn. They may appear differently depending on a person’s skin tone.

Early macule rash

A shingles rash may begin as macules, which can appear as a single stripe across one side of the body. However, shingles can appear anywhere on the skin.

Vesicles rash

Next, the macules will turn into vesicles, or small, fluid-filled blisters that can be painful. Vesicles can also appear differently depending on a person’s skin tone.

Eventually, the blisters rupture, scab over, and dry out. During this process, the blisters may flatten and change color.

Doctors call the macule and the vesicle rash the acute eruptive stage of shingles. This stage typically lasts around 2–4 weeks.

This is when shingles is most contagious. The virus can transmit from one person to another through contact with the fluid contained in the rash.

People may still experience pain after the rash has resolved. The pain can feel similar to:

  • a burning or prickling sensation on the skin
  • a shock-like sensation on the skin
  • itching

Doctors call this the chronic infection stage of shingles. Sometimes, it can last 12 months or longer.

Shingles is a contagious condition. People can reduce the risk of the virus transmitting by:

  • covering blisters
  • avoiding skin-to-skin contact with others
  • avoiding touching the rash whenever possible
  • washing their hands frequently and thoroughly

A person should avoid contact with people at high risk of developing shingles. These include:

  • pregnant people who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
  • infants who were born prematurely or with a low birth weight
  • people who have weakened immune systems, including those who:

The following section answers common questions about shingles:

How long do shingles symptoms last?

Typically, most symptoms of a shingles rash last between 2–4 weeks. However, the exact time it takes the fluid-filled blisters to dry up, crust over, and clear may vary.

After the rash disappears, some people can still experience long-term pain. They may also develop a condition called postherpetic neuralgia.

Learn more about the after-effects of shingles.

What causes shingles to suddenly appear?

The herpes zoster virus (HZV) causes shingles. After someone has had chickenpox, the virus stays in the body in a dormant or inactive state. Sometimes, the virus can reactivate, leading to shingles.

Some triggers that might cause the virus to reactivate include:

  • stress
  • illness
  • certain medications, such as immunosuppressants
  • reexposure to the virus

Sometimes, cancer can reactivate HZV.

How do doctors treat the symptoms of shingles?

Antiviral medications can shorten the length or the severity of shingles. Doctors may recommend:

These drugs are most effective if people take them as soon as the rash appears.

Learn about home remedies for shingles.

Shingles causes a painful rash that typically affects one side of the body. Before the rash appears, a person may first experience pain, tingling, or itching on the skin.

A rash of macules may then appear. Over time, the macules will turn into painful blisters that rupture, scab over, and dry out.

People may experience pain and other symptoms for up to 12 months after the rash disappears.