What Is a Shingles Rash?

The Chickenpox Connection

Chickenpox virus particles, illustration
Chickenpox virus particles, illustration. KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Shingles is a rash that is more common after age 60. It is not life-threatening, but it can be very painful. It is caused by a reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox. The lifetime risk of developing shingles rash is 10% to 20%. In the United States, approximately 300,000 to 600,000 cases are reported yearly. Fewer than 5% of the cases occur in children under 14 years of age.

The most important risk factor for developing shingles rash is increasing age. 

The Connection Between Shingles Rash and Chickenpox

The shingles rash is caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. This is the virus that causes chickenpox. After a person has been infected with the varicella-zoster virus, the virus travels back into the body and waits. For various reasons, the virus can reactivate, travel down the nerve to the skin, and cause the shingles rash.

Common Causes

Conditions that can reactivate the varicella virus and cause shingles rash include:

The Appearance of Shingles Rash

The first symptoms of shingles rash are usually itching, tingling, or significant pain with just a light touch.

This pain occurs on one side of the body in a band-like area called a dermatome. It often wraps around either the left or right side of the torso. During this time, people often experience a headache, sensitivity to light, and fatigue, but rarely fever. One to five days later, the rash starts as an area of redness that progresses quickly to clusters of fluid-filled blisters.

These blisters can continue to form for three to five days. The blisters fill with pus, pop, and then crust over. It usually takes two to four weeks for the blisters to heal. Scarring and skin discoloration often occur. The blisters look a lot like the chickenpox blisters, except chickenpox usually appears all over the body.

Extra Information

These additional details help explain what happens when you develop the shingles rash, as well as how to get rid of it. 

  • How it's diagnosed: Shingles rash is often diagnosed based on the appearance of the rash when it is typical. If it is difficult to diagnose, specialized tests might be performed.
  • How it spreads: Someone who has never been exposed to chickenpox can get shingles if the person comes in close contact with someone who has shingles rash.
  • Complications: There are many potential complications of shingles, but the most well-known and feared is postherpetic neuralgia, which causes pain for a year or more after the shingles rash is gone.
  • Treatment options: The treatment of shingles involves antiviral therapy and often corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. The earlier you treat shingles rash, the more likely you can shorten its duration and reduce the risk of complications.
  • Preventing the condition: In the fall of 2006, the FDA approved a vaccine called Zostavax to reduce the risk of shingles in people ages 60 and over.