Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles occurs in people who have had chickenpox in their lifetime. After causing the first chickenpox infection, the virus is not totally eliminated from the body. Some of the remaining virus settles in nerve roots near the spinal cord. When reactivated, the virus travels along nerve paths to the skin where it causes pain and a rash.
Shingles is more common in women, and in people aged 50 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of shingles include:
Shingles can occur in those with no known risk factors.
Shingles is not usually transmitted from one person to another, but a person who has never had chickenpox and never received the varicella vaccine is likely to get chickenpox if contact occurs with a person who has shingles. Covering shingles sores with a bandage reduces the risk of transmitting shingles to others.
Shingles may cause:
The rash usually disappears within 3 weeks. In some cases, though, post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) develops. With PHN, the pain continues for months or even years after the rash has healed. PHN can be severe and difficult to treat.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The rash can be diagnosed by its appearance. Fluids may be drawn from the blisters for testing, but this is not done often.
Shingles cannot be cured. Treatment focuses on:
The following will help relieve pain and ease symptoms:
Antiviral medications may control shingles. Antiviral therapy may shorten a shingles episode, but you must start it within 48-72 hours after symptoms first develop. They are especially used in people with suppressed immune systems.
If you develop PHN, your doctor may recommend:
The herpes zoster vaccine is advised for people aged 60 years and older. The vaccine decreases the likelihood of getting shingles and reduces the severity of PHN if shingles does occur.
If you do have shingles, take these steps to prevent giving chickenpox to others:
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Shingles Foundation
Public Health Agency of Canada
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Ocular shingles. Wills Eye Institute website. Available at: https://www.willseye.org/health-library/ocular-shingles. Updated October 5, 2011. Accessed February 9, 2016.
Shingles. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/shingles.html. Updated April 2014. Accessed February 9, 2016.
Shingles: overview. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/shingles. Accessed February 9, 2016.
Shingles (herpes zoster). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/shingles. Updated May 1, 2014. Accessed February 9, 2016.
1/14/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Tseng HF, Smith N, Harpaz R, Bialek SR, Sy LS, Jacobsen SJ. Herpes zoster vaccine in older adults and the risk of subsequent herpes zoster disease. JAMA. 2011;305(2):160-166.
6/9/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: 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 February 2016 by David L. Horn, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.