What Is Medical Shingles?

Symptoms Before the Rash

Before the rash and blisters appear, the first symptom usually is pain in and near the area where the rash eventually appears. The National Institutes of Health website MedlinePlus says this pain is usually "one-sided" and may include tingling and burning sensations. The Mayo Center says that other early symptoms may include fatigue and a headache.

Locations of Rash

Although normally located on the back and chest, the Mayo Clinic says shingles can occur anywhere on the body. Some locations mentioned by online medical sites include on an arm or hand, in the mouth, next to an eye or along one side of the neck. The blisters can pop open, crust over and become itchy.

Seriousness of Illness

The Mayo Clinic notes that while it usually only lasts about three weeks and generally isn't life threatening, shingles should be taken seriously. It says that complications can occur, especially if the rash is near an eye and may impair vision. Contact a doctor promptly if shingles is suspected. Continuing problems can be more easily avoided, Mayo says, if antiviral drugs such as Acyclovir are taken within 72 hours of the rash appearing.

Risk Factors

Although it is a misconception that shingles is an illness of the elderly, the Mayo Clinic says that one major risk factor is being older than 50. Others include a family history of shingles, a weakened immune system and having had chicken pox earlier in life. Medline Plus says that after a bout of chicken pox, "the virus remains inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Shingles occurs after the virus becomes active again in these nerves years later."


While over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen may work well for some, the Mayo Clinic notes that shingles pain can be severe and require prescription pain medicines as well as an antiviral drug. It says that "numbing agents" such as lidocaine cream may also help. Medline Plus also recommends antihistamines to reduce itching. It suggests cool wet compresses along the painful area and calming agents "such as colloidal oatmeal bath, starch baths, or calamine lotion" to relieve discomfort.


Shingles is contagious if the blisters ooze and others touch them. Medline Plus recommends disposing of materials that come in contact with open blisters. People who are at risk of becoming infected include those who have never had chicken pox, pregnant women, babies and those who have weak immune systems.

Shingles Vaccine

The website Medical News Today says that Zostavax is a vaccine that can protect people over 60 from shingles. "It does not provide 100 percent immunity," Medical News Today says, "but does considerably reduce the risk of complications and severity of shingles." But the website notes the vaccine isn't okay for anyone who (1) is allergic to gelatin, (2) has a weakened immune system, (3) has undergone treatment with radiation, chemotherapy or steroids, (4) has a history of bone marrow or lymphatic cancer or (5) has active, untreated tuberculosis.