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 chickenpox. The rash may stay in one area of the body (localized zoster) or it may spread to many areas of the body (disseminated zoster).


Shingles is a rash that develops into blisters lasting days or weeks.

Why do people develop shingles?

Because the virus remains inactive in certain nerve cells of the body, people who have had chickenpox in the past are at risk for developing shingles later on in life.

Who is at risk for getting shingles?

  • People with a weakened immune system (such as people with cancer or HIV)
  • People over the age of 50
  • People who have been ill
  • People who have experienced trauma
  • People who 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 (abdomen/back). The rash eventually develops into red, fluid-filled, round, painful blisters. Usually, these blisters begin to dry out within a few days or weeks.

A person with shingles is contagious until the rash is dried and crusted over. The virus can only infect another person who has never had chickenpox or been vaccinated against chickenpox.

If I have disseminated zoster/shingles (more than one area of blisters) what can I expect for my hospital stay?

  • You will be in an airborne-contact isolation room.
  • The door will be kept closed.
  • A sign on your door will remind people who have never had chickenpox or the vaccine not to enter.
  • The sign will also remind staff to wear gowns and gloves when entering the room.

If I have localized shingles (only one area of my body) that cannot be covered what can I expect for my hospital stay?

  • You will be in contact isolation room.
  • The sign will also remind staff to wear gowns and gloves when entering the room.

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 there are treatments for managing the symptoms. Antiviral medications may ease the discomfort and may reduce the duration of the symptoms, particularly if started within 72 hours of the first sign of shingles. Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®) can be effective in relieving mild pain.

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.


The shingles rash appears on the abdomen and face, neck and shoulders.

Researchers did find, however, that the vaccine cut the number of cases typically seen in older adults in half. Of the people who came down with shingles, the severity and number of complications such as nerve pain 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; take drugs that weaken the immune system (such as steroids, radiation. or chemotherapy); have 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.

Where can I learn more?

Call your local public health department or contact the following:

National Immunization Program
Centers for Disease Control


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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: 12/27/2016...#11036