Shingles is a painful rash, usually occurring on one side of the body. The herpes zoster, or chickenpox virus, causes it. The rash will initially look like flat areas of discolored skin.
After someone has had chickenpox, the virus remains in the body in a dormant — or inactive — state. Sometimes, the virus can reactivate, leading to shingles.
Every year, around
This article explains shingles and outlines the first symptoms people may experience. It also answers some frequently asked questions about the condition.
The symptoms of shingles tend to come in stages. Initially, a person may experience:
Atypical skin sensations
Before the rash appears, people may feel pain, itching, or tingling on the skin. This can happen several days or at
The pain can be mild or intense.
People may also experience the following:
- feeling generally unwell
- increased light sensitivity
Doctors may call this the pre-eruptive stage of shingles.
The rash appears differently in darker skin tones than in white skin. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, the rash can often be red, but it can be harder to see on brown and black skin.
When the rash does appear, it may show as macules and eventually become vesicles.
Early macule rash
In shingles, macules usually appear as a single stripe across the body’s right side. However, shingles can appear anywhere on the skin.
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 blister may flatten and change color.
Doctors call the macule and the vesicle rash the acute eruptive stage of shingles, lasting around
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 who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine are most likely to acquire the herpes zoster virus.
- covering the blisters
- avoiding skin-to-skin contact with others
- avoiding touching the rash whenever possible
- washing their hands frequently
A person can also avoid contact with people at high risk of developing shingles. That includes:
- 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:
- are taking immunosuppressive medications or having chemotherapy
- have had an organ transplant
- have HIV
People may still experience pain after the rash has resolved, such as:
- a burning or prickling sensation on the skin
- a shock-like sensation on the skin
Doctors call this the chronic infection stage of shingles. Sometimes, it can last
The following section answers common questions about shingles:
How long do shingles symptoms last?
Typically, most cases of shingles last between
After the rash disappears, some people can still experience long-term pain. They can even develop a condition called postherpetic neuralgia.
What causes shingles to suddenly appear?
The herpes zoster virus 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.
- certain medications, such as immunosuppressants
- re-exposure to the virus
Sometimes, cancer can reactivate the herpes zoster virus.
How do doctors treat the symptoms of shingles?
These drugs are most effective if people take them as soon as the rash appears.
There are other ways people can help ease symptoms. Over-the-counter pain medications may help with the pain. Doctors may suggest prescription-strength pain relief if the pain is not tolerable.
To help with the itching, people could try:
- applying a wet compress
- applying calamine lotion
- soaking in a lukewarm bath with ground-up oatmeal
Shingles refer to a painful rash that the herpes zoster virus causes. The first symptoms are usually pain, tingling, or itching on the skin.
Next, a rash of macules, which might look like burns, will 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.