Basic Facts

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. 

What Happens When You Have Shingles?

In most people, shingles follows this pattern:

  • Tender, numb, painful, burning, or itchy skin appears for a few days before any rash is visible
  • A rash only on one side of the body develops
  • Small groups of blisters (called vesicles) first appear on a patch of reddened skin
  • Blisters often form a rough line on the skin
  • Blisters dry out and form scabs after 7 to 10 days
  • The rash heals in about two to four weeks, though pain and tenderness may persist for longer

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% of people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with shingles at some time in their lives. About half of Americans aged 85 years and older have 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% of older people who have shingles have pain that lasts three months or more. Of these patients, about 18% 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.

Last Updated July 2020