What are the early signs that you have shingles?

Which symptoms you would get first? – you can first spot shingles by a noticeable rash that develops once the virus becomes active. However, some people can develop symptoms even before this rash, including:

  • Headaches
  • Fever/high temperature
  • Feeling unwell or ill
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Chills/feeling cold
  • Your eyes becoming sensitive to light
  • Fatigue/weakness/tiredness
  • Itchiness, tingling, burning, or numbness of the skin – typically on one side of the body
  • Pain in the affected area (usually on the face or chest) – this pain can be quite intense for some people, and may last even after the infection is gone.

Even if you get shingles, you may not get these early symptoms. Even if you do get these early symptoms, you still might not go on to develop shingles.

What symptoms would a full infection give me?

The main symptom is the shingles rash – the shingles rash usually occurs on one side of the body, typically appearing on the face, chest, back, or waist. The position, shape, and size of the rash is dependant on which nerves have been affected by the virus.

What does the shingles rash look like? – the rash initially appears as pink-red blotches on the skin, which then develops into itchy, fluid-filled blisters that are similar in appearance to chickenpox. After a few days these blisters will grow larger, burst, and then form a scab.

In rare cases you can get an eye rash – in some cases, the shingles rash may appear near or around the eyes. If you develop a rash around the eyes you should seek immediate medical attention, as the virus could damage the optic nerve and lead to permanent eye damage (including blindness). If this happens, you need to be seen by a specialist as an emergency.

The other main symptom is pain – another common and  noticeable symptom of shingles is pain are the affected area (usually face and chest). Shingles causes pain because the virus lies dormant within the nervous system until it activates, which can damage the nerves of the skin.

What will the pain be like? – the pain will be different for different people, and how strong it feels will vary. It is often described by shingles patients as a constant burning or stinging feeling, though you may experience sharp stabbing pains as well. The area of the skin that is affected by the rash may also feel sensitive if you touch it. Older adults are more likely to experience longer lasting and more intense pain, because of their weakened immune system.

How long would my symptoms last?

How long can the rash last? – the shingles rash usually takes 2-4 weeks to heal, though the skin underneath the rash may permanently change colour. These scabs will naturally fall off in 2-3 weeks. New blisters can appear while older blisters are healing. Like chickenpox, agitating or scratching these scabs may lead to permanent scarring of the skin.

How long will the pain last? – this pain typically subsides when the blisters and rash heals. However, in some cases the nerves may be significantly damaged, and the pain may persist for upwards of 3 months. This is known as post-herpetic neuralgia, and can last for years in rare cases. Post-herpetic neuralgia affects about 10% of people who get shingles.  The risks of developing this are reduced by getting treatment promptly.

When would I first get symptoms?

  • Early symptoms - As shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which lies dormant in the nerves, shingles may affect you at any time. The chances of getting shingles increases with age, as your immune system weakens.
  • Rash - the red rash typically appears 1-5 days after developing early symptoms, if they are developed at all.
  • Blisters - a few days after appearing, the rash will turn into a band of fluid-filled blisters.
  • Pain - you may experience pain as an early symptom, which may be present throughout the entirety of the infection. The pain may also last after the infection has cleared up, which is known as post-herpetic neuralgia.

Can you mistake shingles symptoms for something else?

The symptoms of shingles, particularly the rash, can be easily mistaken for other diseases or infections. This includes:

  • Psoriasis - An autoimmune disease that can cause a rash that looks like shingles to appear. Some forms of psoriasis (pustular) can develop blisters as well.
  • Allergic reaction - Skin allergies can also cause a red rash that looks like shingles, especially those caused by plants such as poison ivy.
  • Eczema - Eczema can cause skin to become dry and sensitive, and develop a red itchy rash in the affected areas.

I’ve already had shingles. Am I getting symptoms again?

You would normally get ‘immunity’ after the first infection – like chickenpox, it is unlikely that you will catch shingles twice. If shingles does return, it’s likely that it will affect a different part of your body than the first time. There have been recorded cases of people catching shingles more than twice, but this is very rare.

You're more likely to get shingles a second time if:

  • You are ‘immunosuppressed’, either because of medication that suppresses your immune symptoms or diseases like HIV
  • You experienced a condition called ‘post-herpetic neuralgia’ after your first shingles infection
  • You are biologically female
  • You were 50 or older when during your first shingles infection

What should I do if I think I am have symptoms of shingles?

If you think you have shingles, you should see your GP immediately. This is especially important if you get shingles on your face, as if it is left untreated it may cause permanent damage to your eyes.

There is no cure for shingles, but it should clear up on its own without treatment. Your doctor may be able to prescribe antiviral medications to lessen the severity of your symptoms and speed up your recovery. Pain medication, such a paracetamol, can also be effective in relieving the pain caused by shingles.

You cannot spread shingles to other people. However, shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox - the varicella-zoster virus. This means that if you are displaying symptoms of shingles, you can spread chickenpox to people who haven’t already had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccination. You should stay off work or school until all of the blisters dry out and form scabs.

The best way to protect yourself against shingles is to get vaccinated. If you are 70 or above, you can get the vaccine for free from the NHS. If you are not eligible to get the vaccine on the NHS, or need the vaccine urgently, Superdrug Health Clinics offers the shingles vaccination in all locations across the UK. Other private healthcare providers may also offer this service.