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Shingles

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jun 6, 2022.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus stays in your body after you have chickenpox, without causing any symptoms. Shingles occurs when the virus becomes active again. The active virus travels along a nerve to your skin and causes a rash. The rash usually lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Most people have shingles one time, but it is possible to develop it again.

What are the signs and symptoms of shingles?

Shingles can appear anywhere on your body, but it is most common on your torso. A line of painful blisters develops on the left or right side of your torso. The rash starts as red dots that become blisters filled with fluid. The blisters usually grow bigger, become filled with pus, and then crust over after a few days. You may also have any of the following:

  • Severe tiredness and muscle weakness
  • Pain when your skin is lightly touched
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Eye pain when exposed to light
Shingles

What increases my risk for shingles?

  • Age older than 50
  • A weakened immune system caused by a treatment, medicine, or stressful life event
  • A medical condition such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, or Hodgkin disease
  • Exposure to the virus while your mother was pregnant with you

How is shingles diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms. Tell your provider if you have had chickenpox. Tell him or her if you have recently been around anyone who has chickenpox or shingles. He or she may also send a sample of fluid from your blisters for tests.

How is shingles treated?

Shingles cannot be cured. The following medicines can decrease your pain and help prevent complications:

  • Antiviral medicine fights the virus causing your shingles. Start this medicine within 3 days after you notice the first symptoms. This may help prevent nerve pain. A shingles outbreak can cause nerve pain called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN can last a long time after you heal from shingles.
  • Topical anesthetics are used to numb the skin and decrease pain. They can be a cream, gel, spray, or patch.
  • Anticonvulsants and antidepressants decrease nerve pain and may help you sleep at night.
  • Antihistamines may help decrease itching.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • A steroid and numbing medicine injection may decrease severe pain that does not get better with other medicines.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

How can I care for myself?

  • Apply a cool, wet compress or take a cool bath. This may help decrease itching and pain.
  • Keep your rash clean and dry. Cover your rash with a bandage. Do not use bandages with adhesive. Clothes may irritate your skin.

How can I prevent the spread of the shingles virus?

The virus can be passed to a person who has never had chickenpox. This usually happens if the other person comes in contact with your open sores. This person may get chickenpox, but not shingles. You are contagious until your blisters scab over. Stay away from people who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. Avoid pregnant women, newborns, and people with weak immune systems. They have a higher risk of infection.

  • Wash your hands often. Wash your hands several times each day. Wash after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, and before you prepare or eat food. Use soap and water every time. Rub your soapy hands together, lacing your fingers. Wash the front and back of your hands, and in between your fingers. Use the fingers of one hand to scrub under the fingernails of the other hand. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse with warm, running water for several seconds. Then dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. Use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol if soap and water are not available. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first.
    Handwashing
  • Cover a sneeze or cough. Use a tissue that covers your mouth and nose. Throw the tissue away in a trash can right away. Use the bend of your arm if a tissue is not available. Wash your hands well with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer.

What can I do to help prevent shingles or a shingles outbreak?

  • A vaccine may be given to help prevent shingles. You can get the vaccine even if you already had shingles. The vaccine comes in 2 forms. A 2-dose vaccine is usually given to adults 50 years or older. A 1-dose vaccine may be given to adults 60 years or older.
  • The vaccine can help prevent a future outbreak. If you do get shingles again, the vaccine can keep it from becoming severe. Ask your healthcare provider about other vaccines you may need.

Where can I find more information about shingles?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 404 - 6393311
    Phone: 1- 800 - 3113435
    Web Address: http://www.cdc.gov

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have trouble moving your arms, legs, or face.
  • You become confused, or have trouble speaking.
  • You have a seizure.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have weakness in an arm or leg.
  • You have dizziness, a severe headache, or hearing or vision loss.
  • You have painful, red, warm skin around the blisters, or the blisters drain pus.
  • Your neck is stiff or you have trouble moving it.

When should I call my doctor?

  • A painful rash appears near your eye.
  • The rash spreads to more areas and your pain worsens.
  • You feel weak or have a headache.
  • You have a cough, chills, or a fever.
  • You have abdominal pain or nausea, or you are vomiting.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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