What Early Shingles Feels Like

Early treatment may reduce severity of an outbreak

BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

If you've ever had chickenpox, you are at risk of getting shingles. Shingles is simply the reactivation of the chickenpox virus which usually lies dormant on the nerves of the body. Shingles is most common in the people over 50 as well as individuals with a weakened immune system.

People with shingles will often describe the experience as excruciating. The impact of an outbreak, however, can be greatly minimized by spotting the signs early and seeking immediate treatment.

Before the Rash Appears

When the virus (known as herpes zoster) reactivates, the first symptom will usually be pain. The pain tends develop at least two days before an outbreak and is often be described as a burning, tingling, shooting, or aching sensation.

The pain will be localized and easily mistaken for other conditions. For example, a stabbing or persistent pain on one side of the lower back may be attributed to sciatica when, in fact, it's the early sign of a shingles outbreak of the leg.

Others may describe a muscle pain on the shoulder blade or an achiness along one side of the chest. Both of these are common sensations associated early shingles of the shoulder/arm or chest/back areas, respectively.

Both in term of pain and rash, shingles is constrained to a single nerve string and a specific part of the body known as a dermatome. Moreover, it will almost always develop on side of the body or the other.

It is extremely rare for shingles to develop on both sides (or on two different dermatomes at once).

The affected skin will often be sensitive to the touch and may even appear reddened. Fever, fatigue, chills, and headache may also accompany. By and large, the pain will gradually intensify and begin to feel like a sunburn the closer one gets to a physical outbreak.

Shingles Rash

When the first signs of rash begin to appear, they will often look like tiny pimples. While there may only a few at first, clusters will quickly develop and often feel prickly to the touch.

The speed by which this happens can be astonishing. Within minutes or hours, the pimples will form into water-filled blisters about the size of a pinhead and gradually consolidate into larger blisters. If popped, the blisters will quickly develop a whitish or yellowish crust.

The pain of an outbreak can often be intense. Even moving or grazing the skin with clothing can set off painful electrical shocks.

The shingles rash will form over a period of three to five days and then gradually crust over and heal within two to four weeks. However, the neuralgic pain from an outbreak can last for weeks, months, or even years.

Treating and Preventing Shingles

While early treatment with antiviral drugs (such as valacylovir) may not stop shingles from occurring, evidence suggests that it may lessen the severity and duration of an outbreak.

To better avoid shingles, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that adults 50 and over be given the Zostavax vaccine. Approved in 2006, Zostavax is known to reduce the risk of shingles by around 70 percent


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Shingles (Herpes Zoster): Clinical Overview." Atlanta, Georgia; updated October 17, 2017.