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Patient FAQs - Shingles

NIHSeniorHealth.gov, the website for older adults, makes aging-related health information easily accessible for family members and friends seeking reliable, easy-to-understand online health information. Health topics include general background information, open-captioned videos, quizzes, and frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Below are FAQs regarding shingles.


What are shingles?

Shingles (also called varicella-zoster) are a painful skin disease caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. They are distinctive because it affects only one side of the body. The early signs of shingles usually develop in three stages: severe pain or tingling, possibly itchy rash, and blisters that look like chickenpox.

Who gets shingles?


The rash usually appears a few days after the
patient becomes aware of the tingling and
burning pain that signal a shingles outbreak.




In the early stages of shingles, blisters start
to appear in the rash area.

Shingles are very common. Fifty percent of all Americans will experience shingles by the time they are age 80. While shingles occur in people of all ages, they are most common in 60-80 year-olds. In fact, one out of every three people 60 years or older will get shingles.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The first symptoms usually include burning, itching, or tingling sensations on the back, chest, or around the rib cage or waist. In other cases, the face or eye area is involved. The affected area can become extremely painful. This is when most people go to a health care provider to find out what is causing the pain.

Some people report feeling feverish and weak during the early stages. Usually within 48-72 hours, a red, blotchy rash develops on the affected area. The rash erupts into small blisters that resemble chickenpox. The blisters tend to be clustered in one specific area, rather than scattered all over the body like chickenpox.

The torso or face is the part most likely to be affected, but on occasion, shingles break out in the lower body. The burning sensation in the rash area is often accompanied by shooting pains.

After the blisters erupt, the open sores take 1-2 weeks to crust over. The sores are usually gone within another 2 weeks. The pain may diminish somewhat, but it often continues for months – and can go on for years.

How are shingles treated?

Treatment with antiviral medications can reduce the severity of the nerve damage and speed healing. But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears.

If you suspect you have shingles, see your health care provider within 72 hours of the first sign of the rash. At the early stage of shingles, a health care provider will usually prescribe antiviral pills. These antiviral medicines include acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famcyclovir.

Your health care provider may also prescribe drugs to relieve pain. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.

Patients with long-term pain may also be treated with numbing patches, tricyclic antidepressants, and gabapentin, an antiseizure medication. The shingles vaccine is not recommended if you have active shingles or pain that continues after the rash is gone.

While these treatments can reduce the symptoms of shingles, they are not a cure. The antivirals do weaken the virus and its effects, but the outbreak still tends to run its course. Good hygiene, including daily bathing, can help prevent bacterial infections. It is a good idea to keep fingernails clean and well-trimmed to reduce scratching.

Is there a vaccine to prevent shingles?

Yes. In May 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine to prevent shingles in people age 60 and older. The vaccine is designed to boost the immune system and protect older adults from getting shingles later on.

Even if you have had shingles, you can still get the shingles vaccine to help prevent future occurrences of the disease. There is no maximum age for getting the vaccine, and only a single dose is recommended. The shingles vaccine is not recommended if you have active shingles or pain that continues after the rash is gone.

Talk with your health care professional if you have questions about the vaccine.

Archive of All Patient Faqs


More about the NIH:

The NIHSeniorHealth.gov site was developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine, both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIHSeniorHealth features authoritative and up-to-date health information from the NIH. In addition, the American Geriatrics Society provides expert and independent review of some of the material found on this website. New topics are added to the site on a regular basis.


Added July 13, 2017: A notice posted on the NIHseniorHealth.gov Website:
NIHseniorHealth.gov will be retired on August 1, 2017. To continue finding reliable, up-to-date health and wellness information for older adults from the National Institutes of Health, we’re referring you to https://medlineplus.gov/ or https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/.