Shingles Symptoms and Risk Factor

Shingles 101: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Similar to chickenpox, shingles is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The viral infection causes red rashes that burn and feel painful. Learn more about its causes, signs and treatment for the condition.

by Katherine Khaw


Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is a condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It is a viral condition that generates outbreaks of a painful rash or blister on the screen. This virus is also the same one that brings about chickenpox. Commonly, the rash and/or blisters appear in an area of the body in a band-like formation.

Most of the time, shingles would clear up within 3 to 5 weeks from the initial occurrence. The same person could get shingles again in a later part of their life, but this is not common.

Importantly, generally, shingles are not perceived as contagious. Nevertheless, a person who has active shingles may spread the virus when the rash is in a blistering phase. Thus, it is necessary to keep the affected area covered to prevent this from happening. The varicella-zoster virus is not airborne, therefore it would not be spread if the person with shingles happens to cough or sneeze.

Shingles vs Hives

Both shingles and hives produce red, itchy rashes. Nonetheless, they have some differences worth noting, in terms of symptoms and causes. Take a quick look at the following so that you can assess your condition:

  1. Causes – Shingles are caused by a virus that also manifests as chickenpox. As for hives, it is a skin reaction to differing allergies or substances, such as dander, soap type, foods, and medication intake.
  2. Symptoms – Hives produce red and itchy welts, but they do not cause blisters. Hives are not painful to the touch. Meanwhile, shingles are a far more painful experience due to rashes with fluid-filled blisters. More often than not, these blisters would burst. This would leave the possibility of infection if it is not treated accordingly.
  3. Likelihood of occurring – Shingles can only happen after a chickenpox infection (as the virus lays dormant in the body). With chickenpox vaccines available, shingle cases are likely to decline over the years. Hives, on the other hand, can occur to anyone at any one time. It can also be a recurring issue, while shingles are typically a one-time affair.

Causes of Shingles

As shingles are potentially triggered by the varicella-zoster virus, the main cause comes from the initial chickenpox infection. While the physical signs of chickenpox go away, the virus remains in the body. Shingles is said to develop in about 10 per cent of people who have had chickenpox in the earlier part of their lives.

Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

These are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for regarding shingles. Customarily:

  • Rash or blisters on a section on one side of your body
  • Pain, burning, numbness, or tingling sensation
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • A rash that begins after the pain a few days later
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Itchiness

Other persons may also experience the following symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach upset

In rare complicated occurrences of shingles, the following symptoms may manifest. These would warrant immediate medical attention:

  • Pain or rashes that involve the eye area. This requires intervention to avoid permanent eye damage, such as blindness.
  • Loss of hearing or intense pain in the ear. Dizziness or loss of taste on the tongue may also occur. These may be symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome.
  • Bacterial infection (red, swollen, or warm to the touch skin).

Shingles may appear on the various sides of your body, such as:

  1. On the face, be it on the ear, or mouth area. The scalp may also be affected. Shingles may affect your sense of hearing, and sense of taste or lead to permanent bald patches on the scalp if no treatment is given. 
  2. Of the eye, which would generally cover the eyelids, forehead, or even the tip of your nose. Without treatment, shingles may cause permanent eye damage or scarring due to the swelling of the cornea.
  3. On your back, which usually develops around your back or lower back, one side of the waistline.
  4. On the buttocks, which may affect only one buttock and not the other. Rashes, blisters, or pains may ensue – not necessarily all the symptoms as listed.

Risk Factors of Shingles

Aside from the main factor of a person has had chickenpox, these are the other factors that put a person at heightened risk of developing shingles. As below:

  • Being aged 60 years old or older (such as reduced immune system efficiency due to age risk)
  • Having a health condition that weakens the immune system (for example HIV or cancer)
  • Having had chemotherapy or radiation treatment
  • Medications that may lower your immune system levels, such as steroids or those prescribed after an organ transplant
  • Having had shingles before (while rare, a repeat case may occur for some individuals)

Treating Shingles

If you have contracted shingles, there are some remedies to alleviate the pain and itching. These are some of the following ways to do so:

  1. Antiviral medications – These are drugs that are able to assist with the discomfort and symptoms of shingles, especially if taken within 72 hours of experiencing shingles. They may also help with preventing pain caused by postherpetic neuralgia. Among such medications are acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir.
  2. Over-the-counter pain medications – Some of these medications may be effective in alleviating pain caused by shingles, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
  3. Other medications – Depending on complications, antibacterial medication may be prescribed if you have contracted an infection due to the rash. Anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed for shingles that affect the eyes or other parts of your face.

Aside from medications prescribed by your healthcare provider, there are some home remedies that you could execute to help relieve the symptoms of shingles. Although these are not medical treatments, they may be able to improve healing and soothe pain or itchiness.

These are some of the home remedies for consideration:

  1. Essential oils – It is often used as a herbal remedy for skin conditions. Some oils such as chamomile oil, eucalyptus oil, and tea tree oil, share anti-inflammatory properties. However, it is best to dilute the oil slightly as in some cases, pure essential oils may incur an allergic reaction instead.
  2. Cold compresses – Having a cold compress on the itching area can relieve itchiness and reduce inflammation. This process can be repeated as needed. Nonetheless, if you use this remedy, avoid using extreme temperatures (ice baths or very hot water) as these would affect the skin’s condition in terms of healing and sensitivity.
  3. Witch hazel – Witch hazel may be a better alternative than chamomile for some individuals to reduce inflammation and itchiness. Creams are available for purchase should they be a necessary option to pursue.
  4. Homemade pastes – Making a paste with water and baking soda can reduce itchiness if applied to the skin. Otherwise, calamine lotion is also an alternative that may be used in the household.
  5. Oath baths – Oat extract may moisturise dry skin and mitigate sensitive skin. The FDA has approved colloidal oatmeal as a safe and effective treatment (usually excludes oat protein, to prevent allergic reactions).
  6. Gentiana scabra – A bluish-purple flower found throughout North America, this has an effect on pain relief and reduces the likelihood of postherpetic neuralgia. The plant can be boiled in water before being taken orally.
  7. Diet – A healthy diet has always been important in combating illnesses. It is recommended for one to eat sufficient vegetables, fruits, whole grains while limiting trans and saturated fats. Avoid adding sugar and salt as well.
  8. Vitamin supplements – Individuals who may not have sufficient vitamin intake (such as those aged above 50 years old or are immunocompromised) are encouraged to consider taking supplements in order to make up for any lack. Multivitamins are typically the better option for having lower and safer levels of many vitamins and minerals, as vitamin overdose comes with its own harmful effects.
  9. Avoid smoking – Smoking brings about too many dangers and no health benefits, primarily lowering immunity and delaying the recovery process of one’s body. Therefore, it is essential to avoid smoking altogether.
  10. Stress reduction – Stress is a strain on the physical and mental physique. Using meditation or other means to reduce stress and rest will help with recovery.

Shingles Prevention

All children and adults who have never had chickenpox can get vaccinated to prevent the development of complicated shingles. The vaccine is also known as varicella immunisation. While it is not 100 per cent effective in all vaccinated individuals, chickenpox is prevented in 9 out of 10 persons who get vaccinated.

For older individuals, and adults aged 50 years old and older, CDC advises these persons to get the varicella-zoster immunisation (shingles vaccine) to prevent complications associated with shingles. Complications that may occur otherwise range from extensive rashes, bacterial infections, pneumonia, and even brain inflammation.

Generally, with both the vaccines listed above, it is designed to boost the immune system. As such, it would shorten the duration (should you contract shingles) and reduce the severity of the symptoms.

As a good measure, it is vital to practice healthy lifestyle habits such as getting sufficient rest, managing stress, and eating a healthy diet.

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About the Writer
Katherine Khaw
Katherine is an avid reader, finding joy in halls of words. Aside from the imagination wandering in worlds not here, she enjoys stargazing and gardening. In her heart of hearts, she aspires to be a writer, and to be more than mere dust.
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