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Shingles: Overview


What is shingles?
Most people who get this disease develop a painful, blistering rash.

Is it contagious?
Yes, but you cannot give anyone shingles. While you have blisters, you can spread a virus. If that virus infects someone who hasn't had chickenpox (or the chickenpox vaccine), the person can get chickenpox.

If you had chickenpox, the virus that caused it is still inside your body. When the chickenpox cleared, the virus moved from your skin to your nerves.

Should this virus travel back to your skin, you will get shingles instead of chickenpox.

Get medical care for shingles immediately

If you have a blistering rash, you want to see a doctor as soon as possible. Should you have shingles, starting prescription medication within 2 to 3 days of developing the rash can dramatically:

  • Reduce your symptoms, such as pain

  • Lessen the amount of time you have shingles

  • Lower your risk of developing other health problems, such as a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, which is pain that can linger for months or years after the rash clears

If you’ve had the rash for longer than 2 or 3 days, it’s still important to see a doctor. Shingles can lead to other health problems aside from long-lasting pain. For example, when the shingles rash develops on your face, it can affect your eyesight. Treatment can save your eyesight.

A few people who get shingles develop pneumonia, hearing loss, or a disease that causes the brain to swell (encephalitis). It’s important to find signs of these early, so that you can receive treatment.

When you see your doctor, you may hear the medical term “herpes zoster.” This is the medical name for shingles.

Get medical care immediately

Getting medical treatment within 3 days of developing the shingles rash can greatly reduce your risk of developing long-lasting pain.

Male patient meeting with male dermatologist for medical treatment

Herpes zoster differs from other types of herpes

Hearing the word “herpes” can be confusing. Herpes zoster (also called zoster) is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It cannot cause genital herpes. Herpes zoster also doesn’t cause cold sores. Both genital herpes and cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus.

The virus that causes shingles and chickenpox is called the varicella-zoster virus. It’s common.

Millions get shingles each year

Doctors diagnose more than 1 million cases of shingles in the United States every year.1 Many of these people are surprised to find out that they have shingles because they don’t remember having had chickenpox. Chickenpox can be very mild. You may have had it when you were too young to remember.

If you were born before 1980, you have a greater than 99% chance of having had chickenpox, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles.

Shingles vaccine can prevent shingles and related health problems

A vaccine can reduce your risk of developing shingles and possible health problems that can follow.

Because shingles usually develops in people who are 50 or older, the CDC recommends that every healthy adult who is 50 years of age or older get the recombinant zoster vaccine (Shingrix®).

In the clinical trials required to approve this vaccine, researchers found that it to be extremely effective. The Shingrix® vaccine reduced the risk of developing shingles by:

  • 96.6% in people 50-59 years old

  • 97.4% in people 60-69 years old

  • 91.3% in people 70 or older 2

Shingles is contagious

Getting the shingles vaccine can also greatly reduce your risk of infecting others. While you have shingles blisters, you can spread the virus to others.

You cannot give anyone shingles; however, someone who hasn’t had chickenpox can get chickenpox. Anyone who has gotten the chickenpox vaccine has much less risk of developing chickenpox.

Because you are contagious while you have shingles blisters, it’s extremely important to keep the rash covered and stay away from:

  • Pregnant women

  • Babies younger than 12 months

  • Anyone who is sick, especially with cancer or AIDS

  • Everyone who has not had chickenpox

If you have shingles, you may have more than a rash on your skin. You’ll find the symptoms of shingles along with pictures of the rash at, Shingles: Signs and symptoms.

1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Shingles (herpes zoster): Overview.” Page lasted updated 6/26/19. Last accessed 4/1/2019.

2Dooling KL, Guo A, et al. “Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for Use of Herpes Zoster Vaccines.” Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:103-8.

Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About shingles. Page last reviewed 2/3/22. Last accessed 4/1/2019.

Dooling KL, Guo A, et al. “Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for Use of Herpes Zoster Vaccines.” Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:103-8.

Madkan V, Sra K, et al. “Human herpes viruses.” In: Bolognia JL, et al. Dermatology. (second edition). Mosby Elsevier, Spain, 2008: 1204-8.

Straus SE, Oxman MN. “Varicella and herpes zoster.” In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2008: 1885-98.