Symptoms of shingles 

An episode of shingles typically lasts around two to four weeks. The main symptoms are pain, followed by a rash.

Any part of your body can be affected, including your face and eyes, although the chest and abdomen (tummy) are the most common areas where shingles develops.

Early symptoms

In some cases, shingles may cause some early (prodromal) symptoms that develop a few days before the painful rash first appears. These early symptoms can include:

  • headache
  • burning, tingling, numbness or itchiness of the skin in the affected area
  • a feeling of being generally unwell
  • a high temperature (fever)

Not everyone will experience these prodromal symptoms. A high temperature is particularly uncommon.

Pain

Eventually, most people with shingles experience a localised "band" of pain in the affected area.

The pain can be a constant, dull or burning sensation and its intensity can vary from mild to severe. You may have sharp stabbing pains from time to time, and the affected area of skin will usually be tender.

Pain is less common in young healthy people and is rare in children. It usually starts a few days before the rash appears and can remain for a few days or weeks after the rash has healed.

Rash

The shingles rash usually appears on one side of your body and develops on the area of skin related to the affected nerve.

Initially, the shingles rash appears as red blotches on your skin before developing into itchy blisters similar in appearance to chickenpox.

New blisters may appear for up to a week, but a few days after appearing they become yellowish in colour, flatten and dry out.

Scabs then form where the blisters were, which may leave some slight scarring. It usually takes two to four weeks for the rash to heal completely.

When to seek medical advice

Shingles is not usually serious, but you should see your GP as soon as possible if you recognise the symptoms. Early treatment may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and the risk of developing complications.

You should also see your GP if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system (the body's natural defence system) and you think you have been exposed to someone with chickenpox or shingles and haven't had chickenpox before.

The shingles rash usually affects a specific area on one side of the body 

Ophthalmic shingles

Some cases of shingles can affect one of the eyes and are known as ophthalmic shingles. This occurs when the virus is reactivated in part of the trigeminal nerve, a nerve that controls sensation and movement in your face.

Symptoms can include:

  • a rash over your forehead, nose and around your eye
  • conjunctivitis – inflammation of your eye that causes it to become red and watery with a sticky coating on your eyelashes
  • red eye
  • problems with your vision

Page last reviewed: 25/06/2014

Next review due: 25/06/2016