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What is shingles?

Shingles is a painful rash. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster). After you get chickenpox, the virus stays in your body for several years 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.

What are the signs and symptoms of shingles?

Shingles often starts with pain in the back, chest, neck, or face. A rash then develops in the same area. The rash is usually found on only one side of the body. The rash may feel itchy or painful. It 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:

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

What increases my risk for shingles?

  • Age older than 50
  • Exposure to the virus while your mother was pregnant with you
  • A medical condition such as cancer, AIDS, or Hodgkin disease
  • Treatment for cancer that decreases your immune system
  • Stressful life events that weaken your immune system
  • An organ or stem cell transplant

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. The appearance of your rash will usually be enough for your healthcare provider to know you have shingles. He or she may also send skin scrapings or fluid from your blisters for tests.

How is shingles treated?

  • Antiviral medicine helps decrease symptoms and healing time. It may also decrease your risk for nerve pain. You will need to start taking this medicine within 3 days of the start of symptoms to prevent nerve pain.
  • Pain medicine may be prescribed or suggested by your healthcare provider. You may need NSAIDs, acetaminophen, or opioid medicine depending on how much pain you are in.
  • Topical anesthetics are used to numb the skin and decrease pain. They can be a cream, gel, spray, or patch.
  • Anticonvulsants decrease nerve pain and may help you sleep at night.
  • Antidepressants may be used to decrease nerve pain.
  • Epidural medicine is put into your spine to block pain. This medicine treats severe pain that does not get better with other pain medicines. Epidural medicine includes numbing medicine and steroids.

Can I infect others?

The virus can be passed to a person who has never had chickenpox. This person may get chickenpox, but not shingles. You may pass the virus to others as long as you have a rash. The virus is spread by direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. Usually, you cannot spread the virus once the blisters dry up.

What are the risks of shingles?

If left untreated, shingles may cause eye problems, such as a drooping eyelid or blindness. It may lead to a brain infection or stroke. Shingles can also cause nerve damage and lead to twitching, dizziness, or loss of taste and hearing. The blisters may leave scars or changes in skin color. Shingles may cause pain even after the rash is gone. It may also lead to trouble moving parts of your body.

How can I care for myself?

Keep your rash clean and dry. Cover your rash with a bandage or clothing. Do not use bandages with adhesive. These may irritate your skin and make your rash last longer.

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

A vaccine may be given to help prevent shingles. Ask for more information about this vaccine.

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:

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

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

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have weakness in an arm or leg.
  • You become confused, or have difficulty speaking.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Your rash becomes more itchy or painful.
  • Your rash spreads to other parts of your body.
  • Your pain worsens and does not go away even after you take medicine.
  • 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

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.