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What are Shingles?

What are Shingles?

Herpes zoster, more commonly known as shingles, is a painful viral disease that is characterized by a painful rash that causes blisters on one side of the body. The condition often presents in a stripe on the skin. The same infection that causes chickenpox causes shingles. Once a case of chickenpox clears up, the virus remains in the body and can cause shingles later in life. It is not yet entirely understood how the virus can remain dormant in the body and re-activate more subsequently in life, but some treatments can help patients manage the painful symptoms of shingles.

Symptoms of Shingles

In many cases, the earliest signs of shingles are untreated or misdiagnosed due to their non-specific nature. These symptoms include a headache, fever, and a general feeling of discomfort. More specific and discernible symptoms develop later and include itching, oversensitivity of the skin, tingling, and burning pain. These sensations can range from mild to excruciating. In children, pain is typically not present while older patients are more likely to experience pain because the disease becomes more severe with age. Most often, a skin rash develops within one to two days after the initial onset of symptoms, but it may be delayed by up to three weeks. Rashes commonly occur on the torso, but they can present on all areas of the body. The outbreak typically has the appearance of a stripe or belt-like pattern that does not cross the middle of the body. In time, the rash forms small blisters that eventually fill with blood and scab over. The scabs fall off, and the skin typically heals within seven to ten days, but in cases of severe blistering, scarring may occur.


The method of diagnosis depends on whether or not the characteristic rash has appeared yet. If the rash is present, a doctor can determine with just a visual examination. If the rash is not present, shingles can be much more difficult to diagnose. Laboratory tests are commonly used to detect an IgM antibody that is only present when a patient has chickenpox or shingles.

Treatment Options

When treating an outbreak of shingles, one of the primary goals is to reduce pain as much as possible. Treatment is also aimed at decreasing the duration of the outbreak and reducing the potential for complications. Mild to moderate pain is often treatable with over-the-counter analgesics and topical lotions that contain calamine. In cases of severe pain, prescription painkillers may be needed. Antiviral drugs are commonly prescribed to reduce the severity and duration of an outbreak. In most cases, an outbreak typically clears up within three to five weeks, but in rare cases, complications may occur and require extended treatment.