Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(6):1082

See related article on herpes zoster.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a skin infection caused by the chickenpox virus. You can only get it if you have had chickenpox or have had the chickenpox shot. The chickenpox virus stays in your body and can cause shingles later. Shingles is most common in older people.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles can start with a stinging or burning feeling. A rash usually appears on the back or chest and sometimes on the face. It starts with small red bumps that may blister. After about one week, scabs form on the rash and then fall off.

How is shingles treated?

Your doctor may give you medicine to ease the pain and help the rash go away faster. The medicine may not work if you have already had the rash for several days.

What can I do for the pain?

Not everyone has the same amount of pain from shingles. Over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol) and ibuprofen (one brand name: Motrin) can help ease the pain. A liquid medicine that you put on your skin (brand name: Domeboro) can help cool the rash and stop the itching. Your doctor can give you pain medicine if your rash hurts a lot.

Sometimes the pain does not go away with the rash. This is called postherpetic neuralgia (say: post-her-PET-ik new-RAL-ja).

What is postherpetic neuralgia?

Postherpetic neuralgia is burning or stinging pain from shingles that lasts more than 30 days after the rash has healed. It is more common in people older than 60 years. For most people, the pain goes away over time.

What can I do to ease this pain?

Your doctor can give you medicine that will help postherpetic neuralgia pain. There also are over-the-counter medicines you can rub on your skin.

Can I give shingles to others?

No one can catch shingles from you, but they can catch chickenpox if they have not already had it or had the shot. The chickenpox virus lives in the spots from shingles, and the virus can be spread until the spots are completely dried up. If you have shingles, you should stay away from babies younger than 12 months and pregnant women.

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