Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles most often occurs in people who have had chickenpox. It can happen in people who have had a chickenpox vaccine but this is rare. The virus does not fully leave the body. Some of it settles in nerve roots. Shingles happens when the virus becomes active again. It travels along nerve paths to the skin.
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Shingles can occur in anyone. It is more common in people aged 50 years and older. Other factors that may increase the chances of shingles include:
The infection does not pass from one person to another often. The virus can pass from someone with shingles. It may cause chickenpox in someone who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.
Shingles may cause:
You will be asked about your symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor can diagnose shingles based on the rash.
Shingles cannot be cured. Treatment can help to ease discomfort until it passes. Some treatment may also help to shorten illness and prevent more problems.
Home care will help to ease pain. Wet compresses and oatmeal baths may help. The doctor may also recommend medicine such as:
Antiviral medicine may help to control shingles. It may shorten illness time. This medicine is most helpful in healthy people if it is started within 72 hours of first symptoms. It may also be used at any time if the rash is large or is on the face.
Antiviral medicine will almost always be used for people with immune system problems.
The rash usually disappears within 3 weeks. In some cases, the pain continues for months or even years after the rash has healed. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN can be severe and difficult to treat. It may be treated with a combination of medical treatments such as:
Shingles near the eye can cause permanent damage to vision. Medical care is important to prevent complications like scarring and blindness. Antiviral medicine and steroids will be used to slow rash progress.
The infection can also cause problems to the nerves of the ear and face. Antiviral medicine and steroids may be used slow rash progress if there is muscle weakness on one side of the face.
If you do have shingles, take these steps to prevent giving chickenpox to others:
To prevent giving chickenpox to others while shingles is active:
There are now 2 vaccines that reduce the risk of shingles. They can also reduce the risk and severity of PHN if shingles occurs. One type of vaccine has a live virus and the other does not. Most will have the dead virus vaccine. It is given in 2 doses which are given 2 to 6 months apart. The live HSV is advised for people 60 years and older. It is given in a single dose in adults with healthy immune systems. Talk to your doctor about your choices.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Shingles Foundation
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Shingles. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/shingles. Updated September 2017. Accessed September 10, 2019.
Shingles: overview. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/shingles. Accessed September 10, 2019.
Shingles (herpes zoster). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
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Updated June 26, 2019. Accessed September 10, 2019.
6/9/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113997/Herpes-zoster : Forbes H, Bhaskaran K, Thomas SL, et al. Quantification of risk factors for herpes zoster: population based case-control study. BMJ. 2014;348:g2911.
Last reviewed September 2019 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Marcie L. Sidman, MD
Last Updated: 9/11/2019