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What is Shingles?

Also called: Herpes zoster, Postherpetic neuralgia

Shingles is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus - the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. It may not cause problems for many years. As you get older, the virus may reappear as shingles. Unlike chickenpox, you can't catch shingles from someone who has it.

What are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Early signs of shingles include burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching, usually on one side of the body or face. The pain can be mild to severe. Blisters then form and last from one to 14 days. If shingles appears on your face, it may affect your vision or hearing. The pain of shingles may last for weeks, months or even years after the blisters have healed.

Is There a Shingles Cure or Treatment?

There is no cure for shingles. Early treatment with medicines that fight the virus may help. These medicines may also help prevent lingering pain. A vaccine may prevent shingles or lessen its effects. The vaccine is for people 60 or over.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases



More Shingles Information

Ruth, a 79-year-old woman, said her shingles caused so much pain she couldn't bear to put on her clothes or have the sheets touch her skin. Ruth was sick for several months. Her friend, Sarah, had it easier. Shingles made Sarah feel sick for a few days, and she had some discomfort. But she was back to her old self in a few weeks.


What is Shingles?

Shingles is a disease that affects nerves and causes pain and blisters in adults. It is caused by the same varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that causes chickenpox in children. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus does not leave your body, but continues to live in some nerve cells. For reasons that aren't totally understood, the virus can become active instead of remaining inactive. When it's activated in adults, it produces shingles.

Most adults live with the VZV virus in their body and never get shingles. About one in five people who have had chickenpox will get shingles later in life. With shingles, the blisters tend to be clustered in one specific area, rather than scattered all over the body like chickenpox.

When the activated virus travels along the path of a nerve to the surface of the skin, a rash will appear. It usually shows up as a band on one side of the face or body. The word "shingles" comes from the Latin word for belt because that's often the shape of the rash. Having shingles doesn't mean that you have any other underlying disease such as cancer.


Who Is At Risk?

Anyone with the varicella-zoster virus in their body can be at risk for getting shingles. Right now there is no way of knowing who will get the disease. But, there are things that make you more likely to get shingles.

  • Advanced age. The risk of getting shingles increases as you age. People have a hard time fighting off infections as they get older. The chance of getting shingles becomes much higher by age 70.
  • Trouble fighting infections. Your immune system is the part of your body that fights off infections. Age can affect your immune system. So can an HIV infection, cancer, cancer drugs, radiation treatments, too much sun, or organ transplant. Even stress or a cold can weaken your immune system for a short time and put you at risk for shingles.


What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Most people have some of the following symptoms.

  • Burning, tingling, or numbness of the skin
  • Feeling sick: chills, fever, upset stomach, or headache
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Skin that is sensitive to touch
  • Mild itching to strong pain

Shingles follows a pattern. A few days after the tingling or burning feeling on the skin, a red rash will come out on your body, face, or neck. In a few days, the rash will turn into fluid-filled blisters. The blisters dry up and crust over within several days. The rash usually happens on one side of the body. Most cases of shingles last from 3 to 5 weeks.


You Should See A Doctor

It's important to go to your doctor no later than 3 days after the rash starts. The doctor needs to see the rash to confirm that you have shingles and make a treatment plan. Although there is no cure for shingles, early treatment with drugs that fight the virus can help the blisters dry up faster and prevent the severe pain. Shingles can often be treated at home. Patients with shingles rarely need to stay in a hospital.


Why Does the Pain Goes On and On?

After the rash goes away, some people may be left with long lasting pain called post-herpetic neuralgia or PHN. The pain is felt in the same area where the rash had been. For some people, PHN is the longest lasting and worst part of shingles. The older you are when you get shingles, the greater your chance of developing PHN.

"I've had post-herpetic neuralgia for nine months,"said Pete, an 80-year-old man. "I can't find anything that helps with the pain."

The PHN pain can cause depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and weight loss. Some people with PHN find it hard to go about their daily activities like dressing, cooking, and eating. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these problems. There are medicines that may help. Steroids may lessen the pain and shorten the time you're sick. Analgesics, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants may reduce the pain. Usually PHN will get better over time.

Preventing Shingles, Should I get a Vaccine?

A vaccine that may keep you from getting shingles has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. You should ask your doctor if the shingles vaccine is right for you. It is available for people age 60 and older. To better educate yourself, ask your doctor and also investigate online regarding potential side effects of this or any vaccine prior to getting one.


What About Complications?

In some cases, the blisters caused by shingles can become infected. This may leave a scar. Your doctor can prescribe an antibiotic treatment. Keep the area clean and try not to scratch.

There are other problems to watch for. Blisters near or in the eye can cause lasting eye damage or blindness. Also, hearing loss, a brief paralysis of the face, or in a small number of cases, swelling of the brain (encephalitis) can occur. If you have blisters on your face, it's important to see the doctor as soon as you notice a rash.


Can You Catch Shingles?

No, shingles is not a contagious disease. You can't catch shingles from someone who has it. But, you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles. So, if you've never had chickenpox, try to stay away from anyone who has shingles.


Will Shingles Return?

Most people get shingles only once. But it is possible to have it more than once.


What Can You Do?

If you have shingles, here are some things that may make you feel better:

  • Make sure you get enough rest, avoid stress as much as you can, and eat well-balanced meals.
  • Simple exercises like stretching or walking can help. Check with your doctor first.
  • Dip a washcloth in cool water and apply it to your blisters to ease the pain and help dry the blisters.
  • Do things that take your mind off your pain. Watch TV, read interesting books, talk with friends, or work on a hobby you like.
  • Try to relax. Stress can make the pain worse. Listen to music that helps you relax.
  • Share your feelings about your pain with family and friends. Ask for their help.


For More Information

Here are some helpful resources:

American Chronic Pain Association
P.O. Box 850
Rocklin, CA 95677
1-800-533-3231 (toll-free)

Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993
1-888-463-6332 (toll-free)

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
6610 Rockledge Drive, MSC 6612
Bethesda, MD 20892-6612
1-866-284-4107 (toll-free)
1-800-877-8339 (toll-free/TTY)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
1-800-352-9424 (toll-free)
1-301-468-5981 (TTY)

National Shingles Foundation
590 Madison Avenue
21st Floor
New York, NY 10022
1-800-472-8478 (toll-free)

For more information on health and aging, contact:

National Institute on Aging
Information Center

P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
1-800-222-2225 (toll-free)
1-800-222-4225 (toll-free/TTY)

Visit NIHSeniorHealth (, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out loud or to make the type larger.

National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

June 2009


General Questions about Shingles (From Chickenpox Virus) - From the National CDC

Shingles Q&A Topics:

  • Disease-specific
  • Vaccine-specific

What is shingles (herpes zoster)?

Shingles, also called herpes zoster or zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). VZV is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body. Usually the virus does not cause any problems; however, the virus can reappear years later, causing shingles. Herpes zoster is not caused by the same virus that causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease.


What does shingles look like?

Shingles usually starts as a rash on one side of the face or body. The rash starts as blisters that scab after 3 to 5 days. The rash usually clears within 2 to 4 weeks.

Before the rash develops, there is often pain, itching, or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach.


Are there any long-term effects from shingles?

Very rarely, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death. For about 1 person in 5, severe pain can continue even after the rash clears up. This pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia. As people get older, they are more likely to develop post-herpetic neuralgia, and it is more likely to be severe.


How common is shingles in the United States?

In the United States, there are an estimated 1 million cases of shingles each year.


Who gets shingles?

Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles, including children. However, shingles most commonly occurs in people 50 years old and older. The risk of getting shingles increases as a person gets older. People who have medical conditions that keep the immune system from working properly, like cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or people who receive immunosuppressive drugs, such as steroids and drugs given after organ transplantation are also at greater risk to get shingles.


How often can a person get shingles?

Most commonly, a person has only one episode of shingles in his/her lifetime. Although rare, a second or even third case of shingles can occur.


Can shingles be spread to others?

Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles, VZV, can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox through direct contact with the rash. The person exposed would develop chickenpox, not shingles. The virus is not spread through sneezing, coughing or casual contact. A person with shingles can spread the disease when the rash is in the blister-phase. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious. A person is not infectious before blisters appear or with post-herpetic neuralgia (pain after the rash is gone).


What can be done to prevent the spread of shingles?

The risk of spreading shingles is low if the rash is covered. People with shingles should keep the rash covered, not touch or scratch the rash, and wash their hands often to prevent the spread of VZV. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious.


Is there a treatment for shingles?

Several medicines, acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), are available to treat shingles. These medications should be started as soon as possible after the rash appears and will help shorten how long the illness lasts and how severe the illness is. Pain medicine may also help with pain caused by shingles. Call your doctor as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.




*These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. TCM is an acronym for Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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