Shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Anyone who has had chicken pox may get shingles later in life. The virus stays in the body, but remains asleep (dormant). Shingles often occurs in older persons or persons with lowered immunity. But it can affect anyone at any age.

Shingles starts as a tingling patch of skin on one side of the body. Small, painful blisters may then appear. The rash rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

Exposure to shingles can't cause shingles. However, it can cause chicken pox in anyone who has not had chicken pox or has not been vaccinated. The contagious period ends when all blisters have crusted over, generally 1 to 2 weeks after the illness starts.

After the blisters heal, the affected skin may be sensitive or painful for weeks or months, gradually resolving over time. But, sometimes this can last longer and be permanent (called postherpetic neuralgia.)

Shingles vaccines are available. Vaccination can help prevent shingles or make it less painful. It is generally recommended for adults older than 50, even if you've had singles in the past. Talk with your healthcare provider about when to get vaccinated and which vaccine is best for you.

Home care

  • Medicines may be prescribed to help relieve pain. Take these medicines as directed. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist before using over-the-counter medicines for helping treat pain and itching.

  • In certain cases, antiviral medicines may be prescribed to reduce pain, shorten the illness, and prevent neuralgia. Take these medicines as directed.

  • Compresses made from a solution of cool water mixed with cornstarch or baking soda may help relieve pain and itching. 

  • Gently wash skin daily with soap and water to help prevent infection. Be certain to rinse off all of the soap, which can be irritating.

  • Trim fingernails and try not to scratch. Scratching the sores may leave scars.

  • Stay home from work or school until all blisters have formed a crust and you are no longer contagious.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as directed.

When to seek medical advice

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Affected skin is on the face or neck and any of the following occur:

    • Headache

    • Eye pain

    • Changes in vision

    • Sores near the eye

    • Weakness of facial muscles

  • Blisters occurring on new areas of the body

  • Pain, redness, or swelling of a joint

  • Signs of skin infection: colored drainage from the sores, warmth, increasing redness, fever, or increasing pain

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