Shingles Symptoms, Causes and Treatment


Shingles, or herpes zoster

To understand shingles, you first have to understand chickenpox, a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Chicken pox results in a rash all over the body that scabs up in a week or two; it usually happens once in a lifetime. Most of us got it as a kid, and these days there's a vaccine so nobody has to get it at all anymore.

But just because you've had the virus doesn't always mean you're done with it forever. Some folks can get chickenpox more than once (my daughters' friend has this problem), and some people will develop a condition known as ​shingles.


shingles on face
Paulo Ordoveza/Flickr

Doctors don't really know what causes shingles to break out. All that's known for sure is that shingles is an inflammation of nerves caused by the varicella-zoster virus; the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Certain people have a greater risk for shingles:

  • Those age 60 or older
  • People with decreased immune systems
  • Patients with leukemia, lymphoma or certain other cancers
  • HIV/AIDS patients
  • Organ transplant recipients
  • People taking steroids


Jose Luis Balarezo Gardiol

The symptoms of shingles are similar to that of chickenpox, a condition caused by the same virus.

  • Itching/burning Shingles starts as an itchy, tingly, burning sensation that may be on the face, chest, the back or wrapped around the side or waist. Sometimes there's a fever or maybe some weakness, but not always.
  • Rash After a couple of days or so, a rash forms that looks almost exactly like the chickenpox rash. The blisters of shingles are very similar to those of chickenpox, and the blisters will come in waves. Like chickenpox, the rash should clear up within three to four weeks. Unlike chickenpox, shingles shows up in clusters rather than spread all over the body. Plus, a shingles rash will always be on one side of the body. Usually, shingles blisters will follow a nerve bundle from one side of the spine and might go all the way around the torso. It could also affect one side of the face or even just one side of the tongue.
  • Pain Shingles really hurts, a lot. Some folks have pain long after the rash and other symptoms have cleared up, occasionally for months or even years after. The pain of shingles is often described as very sensitive skin that burns when anything touches it, even lightly.

Treatment for shingles is all about seeing your doctor. There's not much you can do at home.


Shingles blisters Day 6, Characteristic purple colour.
Marie Griffiths/Wikimedia Commons

Recognition and a quick visit to the doctor are key. The faster you get the proper medication from your doctor the quicker the pain will go away. Your best bet is to get to the doctor within three days of the rash appearing.

Other than preventing the spread of the varicella virus, there is little you can do for shingles at home. The blisters are contagious to anyone who hasn't had chickenpox (or the vaccine). However, you cannot get shingles from someone with shingles. Doctors aren't sure exactly what triggers shingles, but they know that if you get shingles it's because you already had the virus in your system.


Closeup of a few open shingles blisters on my back.
Timepants/Wikimedia Commons

There is a vaccine to prevent shingles that officials recommend for anyone over 60, even if you've already had the disease. You can also get the vaccine for chickenpox if you've never had it. If you're interested in getting the chickenpox vaccine, talk to your doctor to see if you are a good candidate and to see how many doses you'll need.



NIH SeniorHealth