Skip to content

Here's What Shingles Feels Like, Say Physicians

Experts explain what it’s like to have shingles.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Shingles is a common viral infection that develops a painful rash on the face and or body that blisters and scabs. Shingles can last three to five weeks according to the National Institute on Aging and many people will experience shingles at some point. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states "About 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles, also known as herpes zoster, in their lifetime. An estimated 1 million people get shingles each year in this country. If you've ever had chickenpox, you can get shingles. Even children can get shingles. Your risk of shingles increases as you get older." Dr. Alex Spinoso, MD with Genesis Lifestyle Medicine tells Eat This, Not That! Heath, "Shingles is caused by the Varicella zoster virus (VZV) aka Herpes zoster. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in their spinal cord, which can reactivate later causing shingles." Experts explain to us what it feels like to have shingles and how to help alleviate the pain. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Shingles is Very Painful

Senior woman with her hands on a painful knee while sitting on examination table

Dr. Scott Kaiser, MD, board certified geriatrician and Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA says, "Shingles can be extremely painful—the pain has been compared to childbirth or passing a kidney stone, lasting for months or even years after the rash improves, and resulting in other serious long-term complications; in other words, this is something you want to avoid!"


Burning or Stabbing Sensation

Woman sitting on bed and holding head in her hands.

Dr. Kaiser states, "Many people do not realize that there is usually a phase in the disease with just pain – often described as burning or stabbing, sometimes with itching. Often patients think they injured a rib or have a kidney infection because they have pain over the area when in fact it is the early stages of shingles. Shingles is typically diagnosed after the appearance of a rash in the painful area."


Painful Rash

Woman removing adhesive plaster from the wound after blood test injection

Dr. Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Laguna Woods, CA explains, "Shingles typically presents as a painful rash. It usually starts off as just a red rash and then changes into vesicles and pustular lesions. The rash usually affects a specific dermatome – this is an area of skin affected by the nerves from a single spinal root (i.e. T1, T2, T3, etc.). The areas that wrap around the rib cage and abdomen are affected most often. Some people may have a fever or headache leading them to think they have a seasonal virus or flu."


How Shingles Affects Your Eyes

Middle-aged businesswoman standing holding the frame of her glasses to her mouth as she stares pensively into the distance.

According to Dr. Arthur, "Most people do not realize that shingles can affect the eyes and this is considered a medical emergency. Some people may blame the symptoms on a common headache or migraine. If you develop pain and tingling with ANY type of rash in the eye area see a doctor immediately. If left untreated it can cause blindness."


Get Treated ASAP

woman consulting with her female doctor

Dr. Spinoso reminds us, "Shingles is a disease that requires immediate treatment. The faster a patient can be evaluated, diagnosed, and start treatment, the less chances of nerve damage and long-term nerve pain in the patient. The treatment for shingles is short-term antiviral medications. The most common medications used are Acyclovir, valacyclovir, famciclovir limit herpes virus replication. There are other adjuvant treatments such as steroid drops in the eyes if the patient has herpes zoster ophthalmicus. If the patient is immunocompromised, we use IV acyclovir."


Shingles is Contagious

Distraught senior man sitting at hospital waiting room while female doctor is holding his hand and comforting him

Dr. Alex Prevallet, DO, an internal medicine physician with explains, "Shingles, specifically the varicella-zoster virus, can be spread, so people should be mindful when they have shingles. If shingles is located on the face and head, then it is contagious until it has crusted over. Shingles on the torso can often be covered and prevent spread. When coming in contact with those in healthcare settings or immunocompromised, one should discuss with their employer or healthcare professional prior."

Dr. Spinoso adds, "People with shingles can transmit it to those who have never had shingles nor have had the shingles vaccine. It is spread by direct contact with the active shingles rash or via airborne transmission. After the rash starts to scab over, it is considered non-infectious."

RELATED: If You Do This Every Morning, Get Checked For Diabetes


How to Help Manage the Pain

Limit hormone therapy

"Shingles pain can be incredibly debilitating and lastly cause significant declines in quality of life," says Dr. Prevallet. "Starting treatment is imperative in reducing the risk of postherpetic neuralgia, which is a chronic neuropathic pain caused by the shingles virus. Treatment regimens vary and should be discussed with a healthcare provider. Some chronic neuropathic pain medications that are used are gabapentin or pregabalin. Other topic agents have been used like capsaicin and lidocaine, but each treatment should be tailored for each patient with their healthcare provider."

RELATED: Signs You Have Celiac Disease, Say Physicians


Shingles Vaccine

Woman wearing face mask looking at camera showing thumbs up after getting the covid-19 vaccine.

"While shingles cannot be prevented, its occurrence can be significantly reduced via shingles vaccination," says Dr. Spinoso. Dr. Prevallet adds, "The best method in preventing shingles is vaccination. Vaccination is typically recommended for those over the age of 50, but those with weakened immune systems may get the vaccine early in some cases."

RELATED: Signs You Have Heartburn, Say Physicians


Connection Between Chickenpox and Shingles

Cheerful Smiling Adolescent Patient Showing Vaccinated Arm With Sticking Patch On Her Shoulder After Getting Shot And Thumb Up Gesture.

Dr. Prevallet explains, "The connection between the two is that they're the same virus. Chickenpox tends to be more widespread and occur in a younger age and shingles tends to stay to a single dermatome." Dr. Spinoso says, "Shingles And chickenpox are caused by the same virus. If a person has never had a varicella zoster infection, then they are considered to have chickenpox. A recurrence/flareup of varicella is considered shingles."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
Filed Under