Raised red bumps and blisters caused by shingles on skin

What is Shingles: What You Need to Know

Shingles is a painful skin condition that results in a blistery rash. The CDC estimates that one out of three Americans will develop this condition during their lifetime, and most people who have had chickenpox are at risk for developing this disease.

There are many misconceptions about what causes the virus, but it can be contracted by anyone who has ever had chickenpox or received the vaccine for it. This blog post discusses everything you need to know about this condition.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The symptoms of shingles include a painful skin rash that is typically on a single side of the body, but can also be on both sides. The pain usually gets better with medications, although there’s a strong likelihood  it may come back later.

If you think you may be experiencing the following symptoms, you need to schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. 

  • Itchiness
  • Burning pain on skin
  • Headache
  • Tingling skin
  • Red rashes 
  • Upset stomach
  • Rash with blisters on one side of the body
  • Skin that is sensitive to touch

Your doctor will look at the rash and will likely perform a test to make sure it is shingles by identifying the virus particles in your blood.

In rare cases, the pain associated with the condition is so severe it has been described as worse than childbirth or amputation of an arm without anesthesia.

The symptoms usually appear about two to four weeks after contracting chickenpox but may take longer for some people. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should see their doctor immediately because they could have other health conditions unrelated to shingles which need immediate attention.

Find out more about shingles signs and symptoms.

What causes shingles?

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that causes chicken pox. The medical name for VZV infection that results in this condition includes herpes zoster or simply “shingles.” Once you’ve contracted VZVs, it will remain dormant until later on in your life. It can reactivate later in life if your immune system weakens due to age, illness, or injury.

 Just like chicken pox, most people develop shingles only once in their life. It’s important to note that anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles later in life. This likelihood drops if you have already received the vaccine for it because it helps prevent this condition from occurring.

How does someone get shingles?

According to Healthline, shingles in itself is not contagious. It is VZV, or the  varicella zoster virus, that is contagious and can spread from one person to another. VZV can be transmitted from the point when blisters start to appear until they form a crust. That is why, if you have rashes caused by shingles, covering them reduces the risk of transmitted VZV.


doctor and patient

The rashes that develop with shingles are usually distinctive enough for the doctor to make an accurate diagnosis. However, for people with less than typical symptoms, such as those with suppressed immune systems, the doctor may recommend a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm a shingles diagnosis. Most of the time, for less severe cases, an over the counter shingles ointment can be applied for relief.

How can you treat shingles?

You can treat shingles with a number of medications, such as the following:

Over the counter products

  • Calamine lotion
  • Wet compress

Prescription drugs

  • Acyclovir
  • Famciclovir
  • Valacyclovir
  • Zidovudine/ Azidothymidine (AZT)

Find out more about other treatment options.

How to prevent getting shingles

If you develop chickenpox before age twelve then your body will be immune after recovering but anyone older than 12 should talk with their physician about getting vaccinated against both chickenpox and herpes zoster viruses.

For older people, the only way to avoid developing this condition is by getting vaccinated. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a recombinant zoster vaccine to adequately protect people 50 years and older. Also called the Shingrix, this vaccine comes in two doses that can be administered separately between two to six months apart.

Shingrix provide protection not only against the condition, but also against postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is a known shingles complication, according to CDC.

You can get Shingrix if you:

  • At least 19 years old
  • Are a healthy adult aged 50 years and older
  • Received Zostavax, which is no longer available in the US, as of November 2020
  • Can’t remember whether you’ve had chicken pox or not

Complications caused by shingles

While the condition isn’t a life-threatening condition, it can be excruciating and can even cause complications such as the following:

  • Nerve damage
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN)
  • Herpes zoster ophthalmicus (HZO
  • Skin scarring
  • Blindness, in extreme cases
  • Meningoencephalitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Neuralgia of the larynx

The risk of these complications increases if shingles is left untreated or it affects the body systems. It’s important for those who experience symptoms to see their doctor immediately because they could have other health conditions unrelated to shingles which need immediate attention.

What are the risk factors for having shingles?

One big risk factor for having this condition is being around someone with chickenpox because you can contract it from them and will be more likely than usual to develop shingles later on in life. Other risk factors include:

  • Being older than 50
  • Diabetes
  • Weak immune system, such as those with cancer or HIV/AIDS
  • Steroids
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy


If you think you may be experiencing these shingles symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away. This is especially true for individuals over 60 years old, as well as those who are diabetic or or with weakened immune systems. Early diagnosis  can help reduce the risk of complications.

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