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Shingles: A Serious and Painful Disease

What causes shingles, what are the symptoms, and how is it treated?

What causes shingles, what are the symptoms, and how is it treated?

Shingles From the Chicken Pox Virus

Shingles is a viral infection causing a painful rash that looks like a band of blisters that can appear in many places on your body. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Anyone who has had chickenpox is at a higher risk for shingles because after you have had chicken pox, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain.

In the United States, 9 out of 10 people have had chicken pox. Years later, it may reactivate in the form of shingles. While not life-threatening, the annual incidence worldwide is 80-90 million cases.

About 1 million people in the US get shingles every year, and a person may contract shingles more than once. Shingles is very contagious during the fluid-filled blister phase and spreads through direct contact. Once the blisters crust over, you are no longer contagious.

Rate of Shingles by Age Group

Typical Ages for Getting Shingles

Typical Ages for Getting Shingles

Shingles Overview

The first sign of shingles is usually a burning or tingling pain, or it may be numbness, itch or a burning discomfort in a particular area of the body or face which includes eyes, mouth and ears.

It only appears on one side of the body. A rash will appear a few days later. Fluid filled blisters, similar to chicken pox, appear on one side of the body. It can be so painful that a gentle breeze or touch may hurt, but it is not life threatening.

Shingles can occur anywhere on the body, but the most typical site of the rash is a band on the back called a dermatome, which may spread from the back and can reach to the breast bone on the chest only on one side of the body or face.

The rash can last up to 30 days, and the symptoms usually disappear when the rash dries up.

Signs and Symptoms

Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, chills, difficulty moving some facial muscles, drooping eyelid, fever and chills, general ill-feeling, genital lesions, headache, hearing loss, joint pain, loss of eye motion, swollen glands, taste problems, and vision problems. It is uncommon to have all these symptoms, but it shows the seriousness of shingles.

Typical signs and symptoms can include:

  • Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
  • Rash is very sensitive to touch
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Itching

Some people also experience:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Feeling tired
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stomach upset

In addition, postherpetic neuralgia may occur. This is nerve pain that occurs after the initial phase. It is typically caused by a damaged peripheral nerve by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus.

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Shingles Virus Explained

Unusual Severe Cases

There are rare cases where shingles can be severe and cause critical illness, including pneumonia or encephalitis which, of course, requires hospitalization.

Some people can develop a long-lasting pain condition called postherpetic neuralgia which is more common in the elderly. Again, early treatment for shingles helps prevent this complication. Shingles in or around the eye can cause vision loss.


The severity of the disease can be lessened if you receive treatment within 72 hours of the blisters forming, although there is no cure for shingles.

Antiviral medications are typically prescribed, such as:

  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Over-the-counter medications may ease the pain, such as tylenol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen.

Blisters should be covered until they are crusted over, and don’t scratch the blisters as they can become infected. The blisters break and form small ulcers that begin to dry and form crusts, which fall off in about 2-3 weeks.

Prognosis of Disease and Prevention Vaccine

The prognosis for healthy people who receive treatment quickly is good. The lesions heal, the pain subsides within 3-5 weeks, and the blisters usually don’t leave scars.

However, shingles is more serious if you are immunosuppressed, for example, an HIV patient, someone on chemotherapy, someone on immunosuppressive drugs for autoimmune diseases and people who have received organ transplants.

A vaccine to prevent shingles, Zostavax, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in May 2006, for use in people 60 years and older, who have had chicken pox. A second vaccine, Shingrix, has been available since 2017.

Shingrix is a two-dose shot in the upper arm. The second dose should be given from 2-6 months after the first shot. Shingrix is recommended as the preferred vaccine by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of medical and public health experts, even if you received the first vaccine.

It is 90% effective, and it remains at 85% for 4 years after receiving the vaccine.

The vaccine is recommended for anyone over age fifty, even if you have had shingles. People who have had chickenpox have about a 25% chance of developing shingles if they are not immunized.

Shingles Vaccine-Mayo Clinic


Shingles is a serious and painful disease, and if you weren’t familiar with it before, you know what signs to look for now. The reason for shingles is still unclear. Having a lowered immunity to infections as you age is a contributing factor.

If you start to experience the symptoms I described, certainly contact your doctor immediately for treatment to lessen the severity of the disease.

As you reach the age of 50, discuss the preventative vaccine with your doctor. It is not always covered by insurance. I made the decision based on my particular medical background, and I have had no side effects from the vaccine.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: How long can the pain last from singles?

Answer: Typically, the worst of the pain is over after 72 hours with treatment, but the pain can last for a week or more until the blisters crust over.

Question: With a mild case of shingles, can I still go to a pool with chlorine in it?

Answer: If you still have the rash, you need to wait until it is healed over.

Question: Are shingles contagious?

Answer: Shingles are contagious until the blister phase of the rash is gone.

Question: I have Shingles. I have taken Valacyclovir & Methylprednisolone pills since July 29th, 2018, so is it safe to have intercourse next week?

Answer: If the open sores are scabbed over, it is safe to have any contact with others.

Question: I had a very bad case of shingles in May. The scars are still on my thigh. I got the new vaccine four days ago, and I am having a terrible reaction. I feel like the shingles are under my kneecap. Also, the pain is going down the same leg where the shingles were I also have PHN. Is the shot reacting against me? I also had Guillian Barre Syndrome, and had a bad reaction to the flu vaccine.

Answer: I am sorry you had extreme reactions to these injections. I have had them all without any problems, so I can only answer based on my knowledge. I think a doctor should be able to help you.

However, Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) may occur after having Shingles, and sometimes it will resolve on its own. It occurs most frequently in people over 60. I know it can be extremely painful. A doctor can prescribe pain medicines, anticonvulsants or anti-depressants.

I have compassion for you as I have persistent nerve pain following back surgery, and there is a large nerve that travels down the leg. I have a lot of pain in my knee also. I have seen a pain management doctor, and I had an injection in my back, which contained some type of cortisone. It was an uncomfortable injection, but within 24 hours I started experiencing some relief. I don't know if this is the answer for you. I hope ultimately that having had the shingles vaccine will prevent further outbreaks of this awful disease.

I hope I have given you good information, but a doctor should be able to tell you more.

Question: When do shingles stop being contagious?

Answer: I believe you are not contagious once the blister phase is gone.

Question: I have had shingles for about 2 years, is there anything else I can take besides what I take for nerve pain? They are no longer blisters but still red and painful. They are mainly on my back.

Answer: I know sometime Carbamazepine or Gabapentin are sometimes given for nerve pain, although they are anticonvulsive drugs. I am not sure they are prescibed for Shingles. Ask your doctor what he can give you for that pain. I do think there may be some over the counter ointments or creams available, and the pharmacist can advise you on that.

Question: I have fibromalgia and I was wondering if this will make the shingles I was resently diagnosed with worse?

Answer: I am not a doctor, so I can only give you what I have researched. If you had chicken pox as a child, shingles can be worse. Your immune system is compromised with either disease, so it may be worse for you. I hope not, but early treatment for shingles should help.


Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on January 08, 2020:

Hi Nell, It is good to know a bit about shingles as they are so painful and fairly common. I appreciate your comments.

Nell Rose from England on January 08, 2020:

This is interesting as I never really knew what it looked like and what to look out for before, so great information, thanks

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on January 06, 2020:

Hi MG Singh, I am glad you found this article informtive. I appreciate your comments.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 05, 2020:

Very knowledgeable article. You have a wealth of information to educate people like me. Thank you

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on September 13, 2019:

Hi Cynthia, Some diseases are more difficult to diagnoses, but I am sure mistakes are made sometimes.

I believe impetigo is easier to treat than shingles, and it is much more common in children. I imagine working in a daycare center puts you at risk for many different diseases.

I hope your friend with shingles recovers quickly as it such a painful disease, which is why I got the shingles vaccine. Thank you for sharing this article and for your comments.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on September 12, 2019:

Just on facebook with a friend who has shingles and forwarded this article to her since you write in a simple, clear way that is easy to get through without a lot of scientific diversions. A young woman I know also thought she had shingles and went to Emergency to discover that she has "impetigo" (she works in a child care centre). Sometimes I wonder if there are wrong/different diagnoses being made since we live in a fairly small community.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on May 12, 2019:

Hi Patricia, I am sure your father was in intense pain as this is such a painful disease. My heart goes out to those people also.

I appreciate your comments. I have missed you and was glad to read your new article yesterday. Thank you for the angels. God bless you.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on May 12, 2019:

My Daddy has shingles when I was about nine or ten. He was in bed for a while. For a man who was up before dawn every day and busy working around our place all day to be laid out I knew it was bad. My hearts go out to all who contract shingles Angels are headed your way this morning ps

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 16, 2018:

Hi Peg, I know this is so painful. The medications are a blessing. I hope your family got the injection to prevent a recurrance. Thanks for your comments.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on August 16, 2018:

Your explanation of the cause and symptoms of shingles was understandable and thorough. I recall when my mother and her sister came down with a bad case, how painful it was and how terrible they felt in general. Thankfully, there are medications to help.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on September 26, 2014:

Reddog, Thanks for sharing these alternative methods of curing this painful disease. We are all different and what works for one may not work for another. I apreciate all your methods and comments.

Reddog3 on September 25, 2014:

I am a generally fit & healthy 53y/o female suffering from my second bout of shingles in 2 months. I haven't found any of the alopathic medicines to be very helpful. As a matter of fact, the medicine I was prescribed for PHN shingles pain, Tramadol, actually inflamed my hiatal hernia & gave me severe gastritis. So beware! What I have found helpful are a few more natural remedies, ie. oatmeal/baking soda lukewarm baths followed by lavender essential oil on actual blisters which helps keep scarring minimal, licorice root (anti-inflammatory & anti-viral) can be drunk as a tea or taken in capsule form, and acupuncture sessions w/a skilled practitioner. I just felt I had to share and hope this helps someone else who is suffering. And I do mean suffering!

Good luck and good health.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on December 02, 2013:

Theater girl, I am sorry to hear your father suffered so much from this disease. There are treatments now, but some people have a more serious case than others. It is a sad fact that if you had chicken pox you do have a chance of getting this disease. I appreciate your comments and the share.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on December 02, 2013:

Linda, It is a strange but very painful disease. I think everyone needs to be informed about this disease. I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on December 02, 2013:

Audry, Shingles is a very painful disease. I am glad there is one injection you can get that helps prevent the disease. Thanks for your comments.

Jennifer from New Jersey on December 01, 2013:

My dad had shingles in 1990when he was 41 Not only was the illness painful for him, it seemed to set off a subsequent series of health issues that culminated in his diagnosis of MS in 1995. There are some theories that suggest that the shingles/chicken pox virus is related to MS. I am not a doctor, but I do know that as a child, my dad had chicken pox twice and had shingles. Interesting article. Thank you for sharing!

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on December 01, 2013:

Thanks Pam for an incredibly informative hub on shingles. I remember when David Letterman talked about getting them. He said it was the most painful thing he ever went through. It's strange to think this virus is sitting in any of us that have had chicken pox.

Audrey Howitt from California on December 01, 2013:

What an informative hub! This just sounds awful though!

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on November 30, 2013:

Jackie, I got the vaccine as I think it is worth trying to prevent this painful disease when you have had chicken pox. Thanks for your comments.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 29, 2013:

They have a vaccine...I did not know that, glad I read this, something to think about. Great article. ^

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on November 25, 2013:

DDE, It is a painful disease. Thanks so much for your comments.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 25, 2013:

Shingles -A Serious, Painful, Viral Disease the photo says it all. A well approached hub on this topic. Shingles sounds a painful experience. I knew of someone who had shingles but did not hear see much of her or hear much of shingle until reading this hub. Interesting, informative, and useful.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on September 11, 2013:

elayne, I have had friends that had shingles and they always talk about how painful it is. I know a lady that had it for a whole year, but I do not think that is typical. It sounds like you are on the right medicine and you definitely need that pain med. Thanks for sharing your experience and I wish you a speedy recovery,

Elayne from Rocky Mountains on September 10, 2013:

I was just diagnosed with shingles last week. I had been having pain in my right shoulder and itching under my arm and right breast before the rash came. I thought it was flea bites, but then it started erupting in a line from my mid backbone all the way under my arm and over my right breast to my breastbone. Believe me, it is painful. I wish I had had the vaccine, but my doctor put me on Valacyclovif and hydroco/apap to help. The itching is the worst and the rash bubbling and spreading. Hopefully it will recede soon. Two of my daughter in laws have had it while they were younger than 60. Certainly not a predictable disease and quite painful.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2013:

denden, This virus stays formant in most people. It is usually older people who get shingles, and there is a vaccine you can get when you are 60 years old. The disease is painful, but it does not kill you. I hope I answered your questions. Thanks for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2013:

pinto, I am glad you found this hub helpful and I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2013:

Mary, I took the vaccine also, as I have know people that have really suffered from this disease. I hope we are both safe from this disease. Thanks for your comments.

denden mangubat from liloan, cebu, philippines on July 19, 2013:

what! the chicken pox virus will stay with us.we work,play bringing with us that dormant virus at our back.why don't they die?.

Subhas from New Delhi, India on July 18, 2013:

Hi Pamela! You have written a thorough guide to this dreaded disease. Very enriching and very helpful.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 18, 2013:

I've had several friends who have had Shingles and they told me the pain was unbearable. I have taken the Shingles vaccine, and I sure hope I never get this horrible disease.

Great info here, voted UP and shared.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 18, 2013:

Careermommy, I am glad you learned some things about this disease, as it is very painful. I agree - God bless those that suffer. Thanks for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 18, 2013:

midget, This disease occurs because of having chicken pox as children. I have talked with people about the awful pain and sometimes it takes a long time to subside. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Tirralan Watkins from Los Angeles, CA on July 17, 2013:

I've often wondered what shingles was. This was a very educational and thorough hub. God bless the people who have to endure this disease.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on July 17, 2013:

My grand dad suffered from this. It was extremely painful, and not to mention he'd had chicken pox as a child too. I guess the virus mutated. Thanks for sharing, and I am passing this on for those who require more information about the disease.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on January 10, 2013:

Chris, Many insurances pay for the vaccine now also as it is about $100. Thanks for your comments.

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on January 09, 2013:

I've known people with this, and it's dreadfully uncomfortable... I'm happy to hear they've got a vaccine for it ! Great hub !!!

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on January 01, 2013:

georgiasky, Since I am not a doctor, I would encourage you to seek his opinion on this pain to rule out another problem since the pain is in your stomach with coughing. That does not sound like what I have read about shingles.

I know for some people, the shingles pain goes away fairly quickly and for others the pain can last for many months. The longer the shingles pain lasts, the less chance that it will resolve completely. I am sorry you are suffering from this problem and wish I had something more positive to share with you.

georgiasky3911 on January 01, 2013:

I am 64 yrs old and I came down with what I think was a mild case of shingles, I saw a few bumps on day one. I thought that I had been bitten by a spider on my right side, on day two the rash appeared and was moving towards my back. on day three I showed it to my son, and he said that what ever it was i needed to have my doctor take a look, so I went to the doctor and from his first glance, he said, " I can tell you one thing, that's not a spider bite, that's Shingles". I was given medication for the rash and pain. Three days later the pain was so acute, I had to be given a stronger pain med. Its a month later and I have very bad pain in my stomach when I cough, is this common? My back pain that was horrible, but has gone, but the stomach pain is lingering.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on December 24, 2012:

Moonlake, The shot is a good idea, especially when others in your family have had shingles. Thanks for your comments. Merry Christmas/

moonlake from America on December 23, 2012:

My aunt and my dad had shingles and I know how they suffered I have to