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Shingles Symptoms & Signs – What Causes Shingles (Chicken Pox Virus / Herpes Zoster)

Updated on December 24, 2013

Shingles if You have had Chickenpox You can Get Shingles

This is a refresher for some, and a reminder for others, that Humans are susceptible to life long diseases and should consider vaccination for herpes varicella zoster. I’m writing this because I recently had it – and it’s not a fun experience! This is not medical advice.

The information in this article is compiled from a number of Online Medical Resources and should not be used to diagnose your own condition. If you have symptoms as described on this page you should see your Physician.

What exactly is Shingles?

First off you should know that Shingles is in fact contagious so it’s important to know when you have this disease so you can avoid spreading it to others. Now lets get to what exactly is Shingles.

Shingles is a virus called herpes varicella-zoster that causes both chickenpox and Shingles. Most people get chickenpox during their childhood and it’s this virus that remains dormant in our nervous system insidiously waiting to infect us again as adults much in the same way that the herpes cold sore virus does, but to a much lesser extent with much greater symptoms and misery.

Although the immune system eventually eliminates the virus from most locations, it remains hidden and inactive in the ganglia (cluster of nerve cells) near the spinal cord and also in the base of the skull. The immune system can suppress the reactivation of the virus, but sometimes it fails to do so especially in people whose immune system is weakened due to aging.

In healthy adults the dormant herpes varicella zoster remains in check by our immune system. However when our immune systems become compromised later in life those who carry the zoster virus can become reinfected with Shingles. There is a vaccination available for adults that can greatly reduce the chances of shingles called Zostavax.

A person with shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who hasn't had chickenpox. This usually occurs through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. Once infected, the person will develop chickenpox, however, not shingles.- Mayo Clinic

Zostavax Information:

Zostavax has been proven in clinical trails to reduce the risk of shingles by 51% and reduce the risk of post herpetic neuralgia by 67%. According to the trials this vaccine is most effective in people 60-69 years old. Research during the trials suggested the vaccine is effective for about 6 years. These numbers are not terribly encouraging but anything one can do to avoid infection is probably worth doing. There is no cure for the zoster virus and once you have it… it’s just a ticking time bomb! It’s estimated that 20% of those infected with the chicken pox virus in childhood will become reinfected later in life and develop shingles.

Zostavax vaccination is not for everyone you should ask your Doctor. You may be allergic to some of the contents of the vaccine. People with already weakened immune systems, in particular those with AIDS/HIV or similar should not be vaccinated. People who have had or are being treated for cancer, and pregnant women should also not be vaccinated. There are known but mild side effects to the Zostavax vaccination.

What Causes Shingles – Herpes Varicella Zoster to Create Disease

Besides the fact that we know the specific virus Herpes Varicella Zoster, we don't know for sure why it activates. This is a great question and the real answer like so many diseases remains unknown. What is known is that those who are under a great deal of stress or any person who has a compromised immune system and has already had Chickenpox is susceptible.

Symptoms of Herpes Varicella-Zoster (Shingles)

The first symptom is usually a tingling sensation in the affected area, followed by pain and then a rash. In my case my upper left arm skin became really sore to the touch. Followed by spikes of pain (itchy like a cold sore), then the rash about 5 days later. If you are prone to cold sores you’ll recognize the type of pain but on a larger scale. The pain can be sharp, intermittent, and spiking. Some people describe the sensation as a tingling sensation. Some people describe the pain as “burning” or “stabbing” while others it’s just dull. The pain can be consistent or not. You may feel sensitivity in the affected area such as pain when clothing touches the skin or you gently brush across the skin with your finger or any object that comes in contact with the affected area.

Some people will develop headaches or sensitivity to light as symptoms come on. Early on this may feel like you are coming down with the flu, but the nerve pain that ensues will help you to distinguish this condition from the flu. This pain is generally felt on one side or in one area and if it effects your eyes or the bridge of your nose you should seek immediate medical attention as it’s possible for shingles to result in blindness if it attacks nerves in this area. While there is no cure for Shingles there are anti viral medications that can lessen the severity and pain medications that can greatly reduce the suffering. There are also ointments and skin creams that can provide both pain relief and help guard against secondary infection as the blisters burst and heal.

How Long Does it Take for Symptoms of Shingles to Occur

In my research I found that most symptoms will occur within a few days of first noticing the nerve tingling sensations. However this can be up to 5 or 6 days in some people. Most people will develop a rash, but for some reason this doesn’t happen in everyone. Some people have very mild symptoms while others are severe.

Rashes usually emerge on just one side of the body and follow the path of the affected nerve. Nerves are the highways for the virus to travel. Rashes start out as red blotches on the skin and develop into itchy blisters. Blisters may last for one or two weeks. The total duration of the shingles disease outbreak is typically 2-3 weeks. Rashes usually will not scar if not aggravated, but will sometimes leave skin discoloration in the affected area.

Most people who develop shingles will only have a single recurrence, however it is possible for multiple recurrences. About 50% of Shingles cases are in people age 60 or older.

Precautions for avoiding Shingles.

If you have a family history of shingles you are more susceptible. People with shingles should avoid people who have never had chickenpox while infected as shingles is contagious up to the point where the blisters have burst and have healed over. Clearly you should avoid those with compromised immune systems, women, and children while infected and vice versa.

Treatments and Pain Relief for those with Shingles

Rashes – keep clean and dry and wear loose fitting clothing or no clothing over the effected area. Cool water and off and on ice compresses can help in some cases. What is most important is to keep the area cool, clean and dry without causing more discomfort.

Pain – Typical over the counter pain medications can help some people. For those with severe pain prescription medication is often prescribed. A combination of pain medications and steroids to reduce inflammation may be prescribed depending on the intensity and longevity of the pain.

Antidepressants – These are sometime prescribed for people with symptoms that linger on after the typical 2-3 week time period most people have sysmptoms. This is usually the case for people who develop something called Posterpetic Neuralgia which is sever nerve pain that doesn’t go away because of severe nerve damage caused by the zoster virus. This is a rare occurrence but it does happen. People with this condition can experience pain from several months to years after the other disease symptoms have gone away.

Anti Viral Drugs – Antivarals don’t actually kill the virus, they stop it from reproducing and spreading further. It’s important that you take these within 72 hours of the occurance of skin rashes. Commonly prescribed antivirals are Aciclovir and Valaciclovir, and Famiciclovir. People will have different responses to these antiviral medications (Works better in some than others).

That’s it. This is a nasty unpleasant disease, but is usually not life threatening much like the cold sore or common cold. However symptoms can be extremely unpleasant and most people will want to consult their Physician.

Mayo Clinic Talks about Shingles Vaccine

Person Describes Her Shingles Experience

Doctor Describes Shingles and Treatment

This is a typical Shingles Infection occurring on one side of the body.  Shingles in contagious in this stage... until the blisters have ruptured and have healed up you should avoid contact with others and vice versa.
This is a typical Shingles Infection occurring on one side of the body. Shingles in contagious in this stage... until the blisters have ruptured and have healed up you should avoid contact with others and vice versa.


Submit a Comment

  • MikeNV profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Henderson, NV

    It's pretty brutal pain, and you have to get medication within 72 hours to reduce the onset of symptoms otherwise it can just really get bad. After that it's just a waiting game, I've known people who heal fast and others it takes months and months.

  • duffsmom profile image

    P. Thorpe Christiansen 

    6 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

    Excellent hub. My husband has the postherpetic pain at this point and it is horribly painful. It has been months and is finally beginning to improve. This article really is very helpful.

  • Levertis Steele profile image

    Levertis Steele 

    6 years ago from Southern Clime

    This article is very informative and useful. I hope those who have shingles read it, get the benefits, and understand how to help themselves and protect others.

    Thanks for sharing; I will too.

  • cloverleaffarm profile image

    Healing Herbalist 

    6 years ago from The Hamlet of Effingham

    Shingles can be very painful. I may add for those looking for a natural approach lemon balm ointment is the best. We have doctors ordering it for their patients, and docs who order for themselves all the time. It helps stop the pain, and itch.

    Great info. voted up.

  • singhrakeshs profile image


    6 years ago from Gurgaon, India

    Good job and very informative post. Thanks for sharing...

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    6 years ago from Houston, Texas

    Thanks for this reminder. My husband and I should both get the shingles vaccine as a preventative. Voted up, useful and SHARING.

  • viking305 profile image

    L M Reid 

    6 years ago from Ireland

    I was unfortunate to have Shingles a few years ago. And as you describe above it was very painful indeed. I did not realise that there was a vaccine that is available to prevent this disease from coming back.

    Very interesting article, thanks for SHARING.

    Voted up and interesting

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Great hub, very informative. Never knew exactly what Shingles was.

  • Smartthinking profile image


    7 years ago

    very informative.I hope it will help others.

  • mindyjgirl profile image


    7 years ago from Cottage Grove, Oregon

    Good Job! My Girlfriend has them, I will tell her about your hub.


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