What is shingles?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a condition involving an outbreak of a rash or blisters on the skin. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chicken pox.

Why do people develop shingles?

People who have had chicken pox in the past are at risk for developing shingles later because the virus remains inactive in certain nerve cells of the body. An individual must already have had a case of chickenpox in order to develop shingles.

Who gets shingles?

Scientists are not certain why the virus reactivates, or why it only reactivates in about 10 percent of the people who have had chicken pox. There is evidence to suggest that a weakened immune system may cause the virus to break out of its dormant state, multiply, and move along nerve fibers to the skin. People are at risk for shingles if they:

  • have a weakened immune system (such as people with cancer or HIV)
  • are over the age of 50
  • have been ill
  • are experiencing trauma
  • are under stress

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Symptoms of shingles often include pains that are itching, stabbing, or shooting. There is a tingling feeling in or under the skin, and the skin is red in the affected area. Other symptoms are fever, chills, headache, and stomach upset.

After a few days, a rash appears as a band or a patch of raised dots, usually on one side of the body. The rash can appear around the waistline or on one side of the face or the trunk. The rash eventually develops into red, fluid-filled, round, painful blisters. Usually, these blisters begin to dry out within a few days or weeks.

How is shingles diagnosed?

Shingles can be diagnosed by the way the rash is distributed on the body. The blisters of a shingles rash usually appear in a band on one side of the body. Shingles also may be diagnosed in a laboratory with the scrapings or swab of the fluid from the blisters.

How is shingles treated?

There is no cure for shingles, but treatments for the condition can help ease the associated pain and discomfort. Treatments also can help the healing of blisters and rash.

Antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax®), valacyclovir (Valtrex®), and famciclovir (Famvir®) can ease discomfort and reduce the duration of symptoms. In most cases, it is recommended that antiviral medication be started within 72 hours of the first sign of shingles.

Pain medications can also offer relief. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®) can be effective in relieving mild pain. For more severe cases of pain, prescription NSAIDs or narcotic analgesics may be necessary. In some cases, corticosteroids (i.e., prednisone, methylprednisolone, cortisone, and hydrocortisone) can be prescribed to ease the discomfort, inflammation, pain, redness, and itching associated with shingles’ rash and blisters.

Is a vaccine available to prevent shingles?

Yes. A vaccine became available in 2006. A single dose is indicated for adults 60 years of age and older. The vaccine is only a preventive therapy and is not a treatment for those who have already developed shingles. Researchers did find, however, that the vaccine reduced the number of cases typically seen in older adults in half, and of the people who came down with shingles, the severity and number of complications were dramatically reduced.

People who should not get the vaccine include:

  • Those who have ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or other components of the shingles vaccine
  • Those with a weakened immune system due to HIV, AIDS, other diseases; drugs that weaken the immune system (e.g., steroids, radiation or chemotherapy), cancer of the bone marrow or lymphatic system (such as leukemia or lymphoma)
  • Those who have active, untreated tuberculosis
  • Women who are pregnant or might be pregnant. Women should not become pregnant until months after getting the shingles vaccination.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/24/2015...#11036