Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
Shingles is the name for a painful, blistering skin rash that is caused by the chickenpox virus (herpes zoster or varicella zoster). Shingles almost always affects older adults, although younger people get it occasionally too.
Shingles can be very painful, but the discomfort and rash usually disappear within two to four weeks in healthy people. In adults over the age of 60 and in people who have other health problems, symptoms may persist longer. Shingles may also cause complications. The most common of these is called post-herpetic neuralgia, a painful condition that can linger for years.
The Most Common Type of Shingles
In most people, shingles follows this pattern:
- Tender, numb, painful, burning, or itchy skin for a few days before any rash is visible
- A rash only on one side of the body
- Small groups of blisters (called vesicles) first appear on a patch of reddened skin
- Blisters often forming a rough line on the skin
- Blisters drying out and forming scabs after 7 to 10 days
- Rash healing in about two to four weeks; pain and tenderness may persist for weeks
How Common is Shingles?
Scientists do not yet understand why some people who have had chickenpox never get shingles and some do. But about 30 percent of people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with shingles at some time in their lives. About half of the population of American aged 85 years and older has had at least one case of shingles. Having it once doesn’t protect you from getting it again.
Nerve pain occurs in nearly a third of people with shingles who are 60 or older, and the pain appears to be worse and to last longer in older patients. About 12 percent of older people who have shingles have pain that lasts three months or more. Of these patients, about 18 percent will go on to develop post-herpetic neuralgia, or chronic nerve pain. The risk of this complication increases to about one-third in patients over the age of 79.
Updated: May 2017
Posted: March 2012